Minnesota basketball looking to prove it's for real in Big Ten play
Covering one wall of Richard Pitino's office is a trophy cabinet filled with pictures and mementos.
In the middle of one of the shelves is a small trophy with a basketball net draped around it, a reminder of Pitino's best coaching job since taking over the Gophers men's basketball program in 2013: when he took a group of unheralded upperclassmen to a 25-win season and an NIT championship.
|MARCH MADNESS ON SOCIAL MEDIA|
JOIN THE TEAM.
But Pitino's teams have been on a steady slide since that first season in charge. Last year's team was the worst in school history: 8-23 overall, 2-16 in the Big Ten, with repeated bad behavior and trouble off the court.
Two years after Pitino guided the Gophers to the most wins in program history, he presided over the most losses.
"That was just a roller coaster of emotions," Pitino said.
Now, in a stunning turnaround, the 34-year-old head coach has the Gophers playing well again, boasting a 12-1 record entering Tuesday's nationally televised Big Ten opener against Michigan State.
A team that was historically bad last season now represents Pitino's best chance at adding the most notable absence from his office trophy case — an NCAA tournament appearance.
"I think this is the most complete team we've had," Pitino said. "Getting that feeling of winning again has really breathed a lot of life into the program."
Pitino knew going into last season that it wasn't going to be his best team. After playing with plenty of upperclassmen his first two years at Minnesota, he was facing a rebuilding year with young players.
"I always thought long term — always thought it — that we were going to have to take a step backward to take two forward," Pitino said.
But no one anticipated how bad last season was going to get. The Gophers lost back-to-back home games to South Dakota and South Dakota State during the non-conference season. In the Big Ten, they suffered back-to-back 25-point losses to Nebraska and Northwestern. And they seemed to get worse every week. After closing the regular season with a 23-point loss at Rutgers — a team that hadn't won a Big Ten game all season — they lost by 33 points to Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.
When injuries and player suspensions struck, Pitino went into games knowing his team needed a minor miracle to win.
"Coaching the last four games it almost [felt] impossible to win because we were so undermanned," Pitino said during a 30-minute interview with the Pioneer Press recently. "It was challenging."
Fans called for Pitino to be fired. But the university had little more than a figurehead athletic director as it interviewed candidates to replace Norwood Teague, the disgraced former AD who brought Pitino to the U.
"I think what was challenging is we were going through all this and there was really no administration in place," Pitino said. "You're going to go through tough times, and you've got to look internally for support. We didn't have that."
RELATED: The best buzzer beaters of 2016
Perhaps that — and the multimillion dollar buyout that it would cost the university to fire Pitino — allowed him to keep his job while few thought he was deserving.
"There was just so much negativity," Pitino said. "There weren't a lot of people stepping into the forefront to support me, which I understand. So we had to internally kind of rally the troops and say we trust in what we're doing. We believe in where we're going. I'm proud of everybody to stick through it with us as tough as last year was and as embarrassing as it was. Guys stuck it out, and they got better because of it."
Overcoming the adversity may have helped, but the biggest benefactor in this stark turnaround is an influx of talent.
Pitino landed his best in-state recruit when he convinced Amir Coffey of Hopkins to stay home and play for the Gophers. He added Eric Curry and Michael Hurt, of Rochester, to that recruiting class, welcomed graduate transfer Akeem Springs, now a captain, and transfer Reggie Lynch, now the starting center.
"We got those guys to believe that we've got six new faces coming in and we're going to turn the corner," Pitino said. "For Amir to [come to the U], that was extremely important."
The Gophers are likely still a year away from Pitino's best team, boasting a starting lineup with no seniors.
But this group has the potential to be one of the better defensive teams in the Big Ten, a dramatic difference from last season's team, which ranked 162nd in defense, according to KenPom.
"It's just a much more complete team," Pitino said. "Guys can play in roles now that they're much more comfortable playing in than last year. And in those roles, I thought guys would flourish. It's gone somewhat the way I thought it would go, but we know that with the step up in competition, it's going to be a lot more challenging."
NCAA TOURNAMENT OR BUST?
Pitino insists he hasn't thought about what it would take for his team to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. And he stopped short of saying it's tournament or bust for this group of Gophers.
"I don't think like that," Pitino said. "It's never been like me to think that way."
But the fans that endured last season are surely itching for a return to the NCAA tournament, where the Gophers haven't been since Tubby Smith's final season in 2013.
RELATED: Storylines entering conference play
Thanks to their non-conference record, a .500 record (9-9) in the Big Ten likely would be enough for an at-large bid. Even an 8-10 record in conference could get them in.
"I think the recipe with all this stuff is always winning at home," Pitino said. "You've got to take care of your home court. My first year I believe we only lost one game at home. And we were darn close [to making the tournament]. At the end of the day, if you hold serve at home you'll be right there. I always talk to our guys about making sure we protect our home court. If we do that, we'll be right there."
This article is written by Chad Graff from St. Paul Pioneer Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.