When Gophers Athletic Director Norwood Teague began his search for his next head men's basketball coach, he wanted to follow the path that found him current VCU mastermind Shaka Smart. While many members of the Gopher fandom assumed it would be Smart that would follow his old boss to the land of 10,000 buckets, Teague went his own way and found a young coach with a famous last name with a ton of basketball pedigree.
Richard Pitino came to Minnesota offering no promises. The reality is that he had no idea what he had. He inherited a roster comprised players that fit Tubby Smith's style of play and not that the exciting up and down, 40 minutes of hell version that Pitino has empowered his team to play.
Any expectations that had been placed on Pitino and his team have been exceeded. With their upset win over No. 8 ranked Wisconsin, the Gophers have 15 wins including four in a rough Big 10 Conference. Yet the young Pitino continues to pump the tires of a fan base that hasn't had this much to be excited about in years.
"I don't think our fans understand how good they are, and how good the Barn is" Pitino said. "People always ask me what I would change. I would not change one thing about it. This is as good as it gets."
To steal a line from Jerry McGuire, you don't need to sell us coach, ‘you had us from hello'. There is a ton of cliché in sport and too often coaches and players give credit to fans as a way to pacify. But maybe, just maybe it is truly what he believes. After listening to a head coach say he couldn't recruit because of a lack of practice facility and that Williams Arena was some sort of a historic dinosaur that had no place in the new millennium Pitino has flipped the script and has embraced the history and has everyone buying.
To better explain what he has done in his first 20 games as a Big 10 coach, let's first look at what he has to work with. His two best players, Austin and Andre Hollins were about the only two known pieces when Pitino stepped on campus. He told Mo Walker that if he wanted to be a part of the program he needed to get into basketball shape, so Mo lost 60 pounds and recreated his entire image. He took a two time Mr. Basketball in Nebraska who some labeled as soft and turned Elliot Eliason into one of the best post players in the Big 10. He took a seldom used Oto Osenieks who scored a grand total of 82 points in 39 conference games covering two seasons and has turned him into a consistent defender with a decent offensive game. Oto has scored 49 points in 7 Big 10 games this season. He added DeAndre Mathieu. A 5'9 junior college point guard that just two years earlier was a walk on and has turned him loose to be a force on both ends of the floor. Finally, he brought a sniper from Florida International who can hit from anywhere on the floor with him in Malik Smith.
He has taken these pieces and has them all believing in the program.
"I feel like we have really good chemistry when things are clicking," Pitino said. "They really believe that the whole is better than the parts."