Do you believe in Miracles? Wow — from 8-23 last year to 23-8? Richard Pitino is just 31-31 the last two years, I remind you, as Gophers men’s basketball coach.
This is his fourth season, and just like Minnesotans, some fans are worried the famous name Pitino, son of legend Rick Pitino of Louisville, will have teams knocking down the door trying to lure him away from Williams Arena. While appearing on Emmy Award-winning TPT Almanac last Friday, I was asked by co-host Eric Escala if the Gophers might lose Pitino because of the team’s success.
After getting smashed at Madison Sunday 66-49 and having their eight-game win streak end, the greatest turnaround season in the country will in my view still land the Gophers and Pitino in the NCAA tournament. This would be his first trip to the NCAA men’s tournament and the Gophers’ first trip to the dance since 2013.
That was the same year Norwood Teague became athletic director and quickly fired legendary former NCAA championship coach Tubby Smith. Smith reached the NCAAs three times in six years and beat number-one Indiana at Williams Arena the only time in school history. Smith led the Gophers to the field of 32.
Minnesota is a privileged institution. White coaches get contract extensions for what Smith accomplished while Smith was run off campus by a guy like Teague, a predator disgraced and fired on sexual harassment charges that usually land people like that in jail. But being privileged has its benefits.
You see, people around here think they know, and they don’t know squat. They think Minnesota basketball is comparable to North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan State and UCLA. They think the only Division One basketball program in Minnesota is all that. Let’s be clear: It’s not.
Ten times in 105 years the Gophers have reached the NCAA tournament. Remember, three of those NCAA trips were vacated because of academic fraud charges under Clem Haskins. Having said that, I do like this year’s team. Pitino has done a really solid job worthy of earning him the BIG Conference coach of the year. He’s got my vote, and I’m a voter.
The Gophers play with heart. They play together like they enjoy each other, and they lead the nation in blocked shots. They started 15-2 losing five in a row and then reeled off eight straight wins. They beat BIG Conference champion Purdue on the road. They have been in five overtime games and are 3-2. They rebound well, and they are deep.
Junior Nate Mason might be the best guard in the conference. Freshman Amir Coffey has really played well — he’s likely the BIG Freshman of the Year. This is a young team that grew up fast.
The BIG Conference has not gotten much national respect this year. Just three teams have even cracked the AP and USA coaches polls — conference champ Purdue is number 13, Wisconsin number 24 and Maryland number 25. Michigan State, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois are down by their standards.
The 11-7 Gophers have earned a bye in the BIG Men’s Tournament set for Washington, D.C. this week for the first time ever. I think they will be a tough out and could receive a five seed in the NCAAs. Pitino did a good job not just coaching but cleaning up some of the disciplinary issues from last season. This is a good defensive team.
Larry Fitzgerald can be heard weekday mornings on KMOJ Radio 89.9 FM at 8:25 am, on WDGY-AM 740 Monday-Friday at 12:17 pm and 4:17 pm, and at www.Gamedaygold.com. He also commentates on sports 7-8 pm on Almanac (TPT channel 2). Follow him on Twitter at FitzBeatSr. Larry welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.Larry-Fitzgerald.com.