Minnesota’s Hiring Of Richard Pitino Is A Great Move Given Realistic Expectations

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on April 4th, 2013

Deepak is a writer for the Big Ten microsite of RTC. Follow him on Twitter for more about B1G hoops at @dee_b1g.

Minnesota has agreed to a deal with Richard Pitino, a former assistant to his father Rick at Louisville and a one-year head coach at Florida International, on Wednesday night. Gophers’ athletic director Norwood Teague sent a clear message by firing Tubby Smith in that he wants a “fresh set of eyes” on the program. Fresh doesn’t even begin to describe Pitino, who is 30 years young and has only one year of head coaching experience. They were turned down by VCU’s Shaka Smart and former Minnesota Timberwolves’ head coach Flip Saunders so this move will certainly raise some eyebrows, but it hits a home run in terms of the “thud” factor. The following are a few quick thoughts about what this means to the Minnesota program:

The new head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers: Richard Pitino

The new head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers: Richard Pitino

  • Expectations, expectations, expectations. Don’t expect Pitino to outcoach other experienced guys in a conference that features some of the best coaches in the country. Eventually he may grow into a very good in-game coach but the expectations need to be realistically set when evaluating his performance over the next couple of seasons. Fielding a competitive team, especially at home, against some of the top Big Ten schools such as Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State is a reasonable expectation, but competing for the conference title immediately is out of the realm of possibility. Comparison to Smith is impractical as well because Pitino should be expected to bring more “energy” to the program immediately. A hungry 30-year old coach who wants to prove himself in the big leagues will bring something more positive to the table than an established coach such as Smith who would continue to grind it out in the later years of his career.
  • The move is extremely risky with potential for a huge return. Teague deserves a lot of credit to take such a huge risk on an inexperienced coach, but after being rejected by Smart and Saunders, he made the right move. If UCLA couldn’t convince Smart to leave VCU, the Gophers had absolutely no chance of providing him with anything different in Minneapolis despite Teague’s connection. After missing out on an established young coach, the administration went after a the “safe” pick in Saunders. Having an NBA background with ties to the Minneapolis area (Saunders is a Gopher himself) makes sense on paper but moderate success in the NBA does not translate to above-average success in the college ranks. By going with Pitino, the program will definitely move in a new direction, and if it works, Minnesota may have a coach who could become a fixture in Minneapolis for decades to come. If his success launches him to another program with a bigger brand name after five years, that’s fine too because the Gophers can then afford to go after another established coach because the program wouldn’t have taken a step back. Good mid-major coaches like Richmond’s Chris Mooney will always be around, but they also don’t guarantee a huge return because they are relatively less risky.
  • Gopher basketball could be exciting if Pitino pushes the tempo. Even though the sample size is extremely small in his one season at Florida International, Pitino pushed the tempo as his team ranked first in the Sun Belt in forcing turnovers (26.2% TO rate). If he learned anything from his father’s defensive schemes at Louisville and is intent to implement them in his own way, Pitino will have the Gophers press in the Big Ten. Does he have the personnel to execute that sort of a defense right now? No, not yet at least. But a charismatic 30-year old will be very aggressive on the recruiting trail and could bring in talented guards who could cause some havoc on defense; if that were to happen, the brand of Gophers basketball will certainly be more exciting. Minnesota’s two neighbors – Wisconsin and Iowa – have carved out their own styles of basketball but the Gophers haven’t really done that well over the past several seasons. Bo Ryan likes to control the tempo and play a slow-paced game while Fran McCaffery has the talent at Iowa to push the tempo. Pitino’s pressure style could be a big part of his recruiting pitch and Gophers basketball could shape its own unique identity under his leadership.
Deepak Jayanti (270 Posts)

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