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Its Time for Minnesota to Move On From Richard Pitino

Richard Pitino, Minnesota
A late Sunday night duel between Rutgers and Minnesota didn't garner much attention from the mainstream, but it was certainly important for one program. It marked Minnesota's sixth loss in seven games, and downed them to a 17-11 overall record, and 7-10 in league play. Once a team right on the edge of Top 25 polls, the Gophers are now one of the "First Four Out" in Joe Lunardi's newest bracketology released. It has been a steep fall for the Gophers, but one that has been all too familiar under sixth-year head coach Richard Pitino. Pitino may have the name recognition, but the results just haven't been there during his tenure in the Twin Cities. If athletic director Mark Coyle is serious about his commitment to Minnesota's basketball program he can't afford to wait much longer. Its time to move on from Pitino, and seek a new direction for the struggling program.

Richard Pitino was an interesting hire when the Gophers decided to roll him with following the up-and-down tenure of former head man Tubby Smith. He had been an assistant at a number of Division I programs, namely under Billy Donovan at Florida and his father Rick at Louisville. Yet, his lone head coaching experience was one year at Florida International, which was then part of the Sun Belt Conference. Granted it was a pretty successful year for FIU, who came within one game of the NCAA Tournament, playing in the Sun Belt Conference Championship in 2013. Despite the lack of head coaching experience at a high level, Minnesota moved forward with Pitino, making him the 17th head coach in program history in early April of '13. Its important to note that Pitino certainly made a major impact in his first season with the Gophers. There was an energy and excitement around Williams Arena that had been desperately missing during the final few years of Tubby. Pitino's up-tempo, aggressive style of play also seemed to fit this roster surprisingly well, and the results showed for themselves. A late January victory over arch-rival Wisconsin at home impressed so many that even ESPN's Dick Vitale was raving about Pitino. Even though Minnesota wouldn't go to the NCAA Tournament, they capped off the year with an NIT Championship by beating a very strong SMU squad. It was a pretty smashing debut for Pitino, who seemed eager to prove that he was hired for his coaching prowess and not his last name.

Yet, the momentum and excitement created by that debut began to wear down with two consecutive seasons of no postseason, including a 2015-2016 season that was among the worst in Minnesota's entire history. Its understandable to have some ups-and-downs in the first few years taking over a new program, as you get acclimated to the role and the recruiting that comes with it. And, to be fair to Pitino, few coaches would have had success with that '16 team, which was playing without four key players by the end of the year due to suspension and injury. A recovery over the course of the 2017 season looking it would be a second-life for the head coach and this Gophers program. Minnesota won 24 games, finished fourth in the Big Ten and made their first NCAA Tournament appearance under Pitino. People were so impressed by the turnaround, Pitino earned Big Ten Coach of the Year honors, and again was praised. But, in that Tournament game against 12th-seed Middle Tennessee, the Gophers seemed unprepared and never adjusted to MTU's increased pace of play. This has been the issue for some time now; Pitino is simply not a good in-game head coach. It has been evident for some time now, and its time to realize that it is not going to magically change.

Pitino's inability to adjust and evolve has been especially evident this season. An early league game against Maryland at home was a perfect opportunity to continue the good vibes gained from an impressive win on the road against Wisconsin. The Gophers held a comfortable lead for much of the game until the Terrapins switched to a 2-3 zone defense in the second half. Minnesota looked absolutely lost trying to run any sort of offense, and in turn Maryland took the upper hand. The Terps would end up winning by 15 on the road, with the Gophers putting together a truly terrible shooting performance in that second half. This game was the perfect encapsulation of the issues Pitino has had and why this Gophers program has been so frustratingly streaky. Despite coaching in the Big Ten for half a decade, I'm still not sure whether Pitino has any idea how to break a zone. The offense as a whole has seemed regularly lost for much of the season. Outside of isolation possessions by star Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy's action on the block, there is no flow to the offense and no rhythm. Perhaps you can blame that on the lack of a true point guard this season for the Gophers, but it has been evident for so much of Pitino's tenure. That Maryland game also showcased something that has absolutely haunted the Gophers under these past six seasons: free throw shooting. Currently, Minnesota is hitting 67% from the free throw line, which is 298th nationally. Thats about par for Pitino teams, whose teams have lost close game after close game because they simply can't convert one of the most fundamental parts of the sport. Sure, at some point players have have to make their shots, but how has free throw shooting not been made an even larger priority? The stats speak for themselves; either the coaching staff doesn't care about this major issue, or they don't know how to fix it. As a fan of this Gopher team, I'm not sure which is more troubling.

To Pitino's credit, he has recruited extremely well and that can't be overlooked at a program not known for producing top-tier talent. Back in the 2017 class, the staff was able to go out east and land Isaiah Washington, a Top 50 national recruit from the Bronx. They've done an incredible job capitalizing on the impressive talent playing in the state of Minnesota. They locked down Amir Coffey from a number of other big-time programs, and also managed to keep four-star Daniel Oturu and three-star Gabe Kalscheur in the state. Both of those guys have made an immediate impact, namely Kalscheur, who hit six threes in Sunday's loss to Rutgers. Yet, this recruiting success raises a really fundamental question: why can't Minnesota win with this talent? Coffey is easily one of the greatest talents the program has ever had, and yet there is a good chance he could end his Gophers career with one single, short-lived NCAA Tournament appearance. Meanwhile, Washington has really struggled in his time in Minnesota, showing no real development and butting heads with the coaching staff. While we can applaud Pitino's success on the recruiting trail, the fact it hasn't materialized into anything very meaningful just goes to further show the shortcomings he has as a head coach.

One of the most common arguments that I've heard for the Gophers to retain Pitino is that they don't believe they can land any head coach better. I do understand that landing a huge, established name at this type of program won't be easy, but that shouldn't be any reason to keep around an underachieving coach. Here is a short list of guys that should be in play if Minnesota does indeed decide to part ways with the sixth-year coach.
Eric Musselman, Nevada: Musselman has made his way around nearly every level of basketball, currently leading a Nevada squad that looks ready to make a deep NCAA Tournament run. He has coached in the NBA with both the Warriors and Kings, as well as the G-League. His success with the Wolf Pack shows he can win at unconventional places, and he may be eager to leave, considering Nevada is a senior-laden team that will need significant rebuilding after this season. Musselman has some Minnesota ties: he was a Timberwolves assistant in the early 90's.
Fred Hoiberg, Former Iowa State Coach: This really would be a dream scenario for any Gophers fan. Hoiberg has a proven pedigree, winning big at Iowa State (2 Big 12 Tournament victories) before making a short-lived jump to the NBA. Hoiberg has to be eager to return to the collegiate ranks, and he knows Minnesota well. He played for the Timberwolves, and also served as VP of Basketball Operations for them. At 46, he is the perfect blend of still being fairly young but possessing ample experience.
Nate Oats, Buffalo: At Buffalo, Nate Oats has built a tremendous mid-major program that has proven they can take down the top dogs. They've been to the Big Dance twice in four seasons with him, and look well on their way to a third at this point in 2019. Originally from Wisconsin with his alma mater being at Maranatha Baptist (Watertown, WI) returning to the Midwest may be in the cards for the 44-year old.

1 comment:

Mike McGowan said...

"Pitino is simply not a good in-game head coach. It has been evident for some time now, and its time to realize that it is not going to magically change." - 100% agreement!

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