Richard Pitino was at a grocery store near his home in Edina when he ran into a fan who figured the gloomy-faced Gophers basketball coach needed a pick-me-up.
“Tough season, Coach,” the fan said in late November.
Pitino smiled, said thanks and walked away thinking it’s “a little too early for that.”
The Gophers had played just four games.
Now the Gophers (4-5) are off to the worst nine-game start in Pitino’s seven years at Minnesota, the worst for the program since the end of the Dan Monson era over a decade ago. They opened Big Ten play Monday with a 20-point drubbing at Iowa, where three starters — Marcus Carr, Gabe Kalscheur and Payton Willis — shot a combined 3-for-29.
The Gophers are desperate for a turnaround to salvage any hope for a third NCAA tournament berth in four years. And their next game comes Sunday against a 9-0 Ohio State team ranked No. 3 in the nation.
“We’ve got a tough task,” Pitino said. “We need a great environment at the Barn. We need to win those home games. The season is not dead yet. We still got a lot of basketball to play.”
With pressure quickly mounting around Pitino, the Gophers could have difficulty returning to .500. Minnesota bolstered its nonconference schedule, and it has taken a toll on a team with seven newcomers.
After Ohio State comes Oklahoma State — which will be Minnesota’s sixth game against a high-major opponent outside the Big Ten. The Gophers are 1-4 in those games.
“The out-of-conference performances are critical,” ESPN college hoops analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “Even if you go 2-4 in that six-game slate, it will be hard to argue at the end of the year that [the Gophers] are an NCAA team.”
Early bubble burst?
Yes, the Big Ten regular-season schedule is a 20-game sprint that won’t hit its full stride until after New Year’s Day. But the time is now to start notching big victories for the Gophers, who have delivered a winning conference record just once in the past 14 years. That happened three seasons ago, when the Gophers went 11-7, helping Pitino get his first NCAA tournament appearance.
Last year, the Gophers went 9-11 in the Big Ten but built up their NCAA tournament résumé with a 10-1 nonconference record, including wins over Utah, Texas A&M, Washington and Oklahoma State.
The Gophers’ best opportunities ahead will come in the Big Ten, which has three teams ranked in the top five — Ohio State, No. 4 Maryland and No. 5 Michigan — with Michigan State at No. 16. The conference’s strength should help teams come Selection Sunday.
Nine Big Ten teams were ranked in the top 50 in stat guru Ken Pomeroy’s rankings as of Thursday, with Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue and Maryland in the top 10.
Add it up and there will be chances for this Gophers team to climb fast if it can get hot.
“I think teams can make the NCAA tournament winning 17 games, 18 games,” Pitino said earlier this month. “It’s totally changed, and I think it’s for the better. It’s about who you beat. … It’s all about the quality of your win.”
But what happens if the Gophers can’t get back on track by Jan. 2, for that final 18-game push through the Big Ten meat grinder? What if there’s another free fall?
Two seasons ago, the Gophers suffered through a nine-game Big Ten losing streak and finished 2-16 in conference play. At the time, Pitino’s buyout was about $4 million.
He needed a bounce-back season and got it last winter, when the Gophers delivered their first NCAA tournament win in six years, beating Louisville before falling to Michigan State in the second round.
Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle signed Pitino to a two-year extension through 2023-24, bumping his salary to $2.46 million but keeping his buyout terms ($2 million this season) similar.
Pitino, 37, is 134-111 as Gophers coach, including 40-71 in the Big Ten. He has signed several four-star recruits out of state, but he’s failed to land most of the top in-state prospects he’s offered recently, including five-star Prior Lake big man Dawson Garcia, who picked Marquette.
Coyle said in the spring the extension was an “easy decision,” because he was pleased with how Pitino ran the program. “We felt it was very important to send a message that he is our guy and we want him here,” Coyle said in May.
Avoiding more hiccups
Pitino said this has been the toughest early schedule of his career. Last year’s start had challenges, but there were six games against lower-level opponents, two more than this season.
A Gophers team trying to replace All-Big Ten performers Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy could’ve used more schedule soft spots to build chemistry and confidence. No such luck. The Gophers’ only game against a non-high-major opponent left is Dec. 28 vs. Florida International at home.
Even if the Gophers rediscover some magic at Williams Arena, as so often happens, they’ll need a rebirth on the road. They are shooting 36.3% away from home, including 28.3% from three-point range.
“We kind of have to form our identity and play who we are and who we want to be away from home,” said Carr, who had two points on 1-for-10 shooting at Iowa. “There’s no place like the Barn. It’s a great feeling playing here, but we have to take it on the road as well.”
Before last season’s run to the NCAA tournament, that Gophers team had its own hiccups. The Gophers were 1-6 in one stretch and lost six straight road games. The breakthrough came March 5, with an upset of No. 11 Purdue at Williams.
If the Gophers can put the Iowa nightmare behind them and knock off Ohio State, it would be their first win over a top-five opponent since Tubby Smith’s last season as coach against No. 1 Indiana in 2013.
Other chances will follow Sunday’s opportunity, but Pitino knows it’s no longer early.
“The fight to get back to the NCAA tournament is a daunting one,” he said, “and an exciting one.”