Big Ten basketball previews: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Big Ten basketball previews: Minnesota Golden Gophers
November 9, 2013, 2:45 pm
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Vinnie Duber

It's been a whirlwind for Richard Pitino.

If you think Chris Collins is the only young gun taking over as a head coach in the Big Tem, then wait till you meet the 31-year-old Pitino. And, yes, that name sounds familiar for a reason. Richard is the son of Rick, the legendary college basketball coach and leader of the reigning national-champion Louisville Cardinals.

Richard Pitino has been there by his dad's side at Louisville, spending three seasons as an assistant coach there, sandwiched around a pair of seasons under Billy Donovan at Florida. He spent just one year last season helming Florida International, his only prior head-coaching experience. That all happened in the past six years. He's been coaching college basketball for nine years total.

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Now he's the head man in the Twin Cities, and he's hitting the ground running.

"Any time you take over a new program, they're going to watch you, they're going to judge you, they're going to see you, they're going to say 'What's this guy all about?' I try to go into every single practice as prepared as possible, as confident with what our game plan is as possible because they're going to look to that," Pitino said at Big Ten basketball media day last week. "'Does this guy believe in what we're doing? Does he believe in the future? Does he believe in us? Does he think we're getting better?' And I've tried to show that, my staff has tried to show that. I think it's been pretty successful so far."

Success was something that Pitino experienced right out of the gate in his head-coaching career. He took over for Isiah Thomas — yes, that Isiah Thomas — at FIU and took a team that finished 8-21 in 2011-12 and led it to an 18-14 record and a trip to the championship game of the Sun Belt tournament, a game the Golden Panthers lost by two points, or as Pitino put it "a basket away from the NCAA tournament."

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Such an immediate turnaround is obviously something Pitino would love to be able to do at Minnesota, and he's just been through that process, which he said is helpful.

"It helps," he said. "I think there was a much different situation at FIU. We only had, when I took the job, three scholarship players. Guys had transferred, guys had left for whatever the reason may be. ... We had to make the best of a tough situation, and I give a lot of the credit to the players because they were so willing to work, they were so bought-in to the team, they had no ego. And in order to do it here at Minnesota, we've got to be the same way."

The good news for Pitino is that his new crop of players appears to be buying in. Senior guard Austin Hollins had nothing but positives to describe Pitino.

"Intense, perfectionist, attention to detail," Hollins rattled off. "He's really intense at practice. He gets on us when he needs to, and he praises us when he needs to. I think he's got a really good balance of that, and that's something that the guys really appreciate. He doesn't sugar-coat anything. He tells them straight-up what they need to hear. It helps us, as players, get better."

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Last year

In the last year of the Tubby Smith Era at Minnesota, the Gophers finished with a 21-13 record though just an 8-10 mark in the Big Ten, finishing in a tie for seventh place. The Gophers did have an incredibly tough schedule but scored some big wins, including an 11-game winning streak that included victories over Memphis, Stanford, Florida State, Michigan State and Illinois. They were eliminated in the first round of the Big Ten tournament but did win a game in the NCAA tournament before losing in the third round to Florida.

At the helm

Richard Pitino takes over for Tubby Smith, who coached six seasons at Minnesota. Pitino has a pair of famous mentors — similar to fellow Big Ten newcomer, Northwestern's Chris Collins — in his father, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, and his former boss, Florida coach Billy Donovan. He had the FIU Golden Panthers a win away from the NCAA tournament last season.

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Departed and returned

The Gophers lose three of their top five scorers from a season ago in Rodney Williams, Trevor Mbakwe and Joe Coleman. But the big news is the return of upperclassmen Austin and Andre Hollins, a pair of similarly last-named guards from Tennessee and Minnesota's two leading scorers from last season. Andre scored 14.6 points per game last year, as well as leading the team with 3.4 assists per game, and Austin averaged 10.7 points per game. Pitino raved about Austin Hollins at media day.

"I've been really, really impressed with Austin Hollins, his professionalism on a daily basis. Never had a bad day," Pitino said of the elder Hollins. "I think that's kind of a testament to the way that he was raised. He legitimately walks on the court like he's an NBA basketball player here to do his job. He does that in every aspect of the game. It's really unique. I've been very impressed with him."

Fresh faces

There are six newcomers on the Minnesota roster this season, including a pair of true freshmen in Jasen Baranowski and Daquein McNeil. Senior Malik Smith is also new in the fold, as he follows Pitino from Florida International. Smith started all but one game for Pitino's Golden Panthers last year and was the team's second leading scorer, averaging 14.1 points per game. He was also the country's 16th-best three-point shooter, averaging three of those made each game.

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Non-conference tests

Minnesota will head to the Maui Invitational later this month, with tests there against Syracuse and either Arkansas or California. The Gophers get Florida State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

Season outlook

Pitino is generating a similar buzz in the Twin Cities as Chris Collins is in Evanston, but Pitino has a much better starting point, inheriting a team that won 20 games and won a game in the Big Dance last season. Of course, Pitino knows how big programs work, and he's focused on building for the long term. But if the Hollinses step up and someone can haul in some rebounds — like the 17 brought down by center Elliott Eliason in the team's season opener on Friday — perhaps a return trip to the NCAA tournament is in the cards.

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This is the sixth in a series of 2013-14 Big Ten basketball previews, which will be rolling out over the next few days as the college basketball season gets into full swing. Be sure to check out all the previews to get ready for your favorite Big Ten team's upcoming season.

Thursday, Nov. 7: Illinois and Northwestern

Friday, Nov. 8: Penn State and Nebraska

Saturday, Nov. 9: Purdue and Minnesota

Sunday, Nov. 10: Iowa and Indiana

Monday, Nov. 11: Michigan and Wisconsin

Tuesday, Nov. 12: Ohio State and Michigan State