The NCAA Tournament is upon us, and the storylines that go with it are everywhere. The Gophers are in the field, and that is a great thing for the program in the short-term. However, a long-term question is still the elephant in the room. What is the future of Richard Pitino at the University of Minnesota?
First, let’s straighten one thing out. There are indeed questions about Pitino’s job. If you’re one of the people who was calling for his head prior to the two wins over Purdue, it’s likely you would still like to see him gone. If two games were enough to change your mind, you might want to reconsider your process for developing opinions on sports.
There are so many layers to this. You’ll hear the haters say “He’s got a .364 winning percentage in Big Ten play.” Or, “He’s missed out on all of the great local talent.” Let’s take an in-depth look at the journey of this program over the past three seasons.
The .364 winning percentage means absolutely nothing to me. Let me tell you why. Pitino took over a Big Ten program at 30 years of age. That’s right 30. Everyone should have expected some troubles in conference play at the beginning of his tenure. What I’m concerned with is year four. Do you remember what this team looked like just two years ago? They finished fourth in the Big Ten and earned a five-seed in the NCAA Tournament. It was undoubtedly one of the best seasons in program history, especially if you’re not counting the seasons that were striped away due to academic fraud. Do you remember what this team looked like going into last season? Projected to finish second in the conference. Ranked in the top-15 nationally. The Gophers had arrived. They were finally all the way back from the scandal that had decimated the program 20 years earlier. Then came January 3, 2018. The Gophers were 12-3 to start the highly anticipated season, and had a game against a lowly Illinois team that night at the Barn. The Gophers won that night, but little did we all know it was the beginning of the end. Amir Coffey injured his shoulder on that evening and was never the same, missing significant time. Two day later, sexual assault allegations were brought against Reggie Lynch and he never played for the program again. Eric Curry was already out for the season with a torn ACL. Dupree McBrayer was playing on one leg. Nate Mason had received awful medical advice, and was playing through a very severe hip injury. In short, what could have went wrong went wrong in the 2017-18 season. You can’t hold last season against Pitino.
Fast forward to this season. The national Pundits were completely off the Gophers. No one predicted them to be a 10-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Despite ups and downs this season, this team is playing its best basketball in March. Pitino has gotten a ton out of this group despite some awful luck. Just imagine if Mason would have gotten better medical advice. He would have sat out last year, and been part of this group. What if Jarvis Johnson was the senior point guard of this team? The DeLaSalle product was a huge get for Pitino, but is unable to play due to a heart condition. Consider the NCAA denying Marcus Carr’s waiver. This team would be significantly better if just one of those three breaks would have went its way. It’s not Richard Pitino’s fault that this team doesn’t have a point guard. It really has just been bad luck.
There is obviously more to it than this. Someone who coaches or plays can tell you a whole lot more about Pitino’s coaching tactics than I can. However, from a results standpoint, I’m more than happy with the last three years. This program is in a better position today than it was ten years ago, or at any point post Clem Haskins. If you want a change, that’s fine and I completely get it. I just feel there’s a good chance the successor won’t be as good as the predecessor.