Richard Pitino enters his fourth season at Minnesota coming off a disastrous 2-16 finish in the Big Ten and with a new boss watching over the program.
Those are two elements that can bring major concern about a coach’s future, but Pitino walks into a crucial season in his tenure brimming with confidence.
”I do believe, when healthy, it’s the most talent we’ve had and it’s the most complete team. You’ve got to stay healthy but I really am excited about these guys,” Pitino said.
There are six new players on the roster from the team that went 8-23 last season, meaning nearly half the team wasn’t around for the difficulties of his third year on the job. Not only did a young and overmatched roster falter on the court, but there were a couple of off-the-court incidents that added to the misery.
”They seem very eager to move on from last year,” Pitino said. ”Last year was very, very difficult for everybody. Those returners, they’ve got pride. They want to show people what we’re all about. They’ve been really eager to change the perspective of this basketball program.”
The Golden Gophers open the season against Louisiana-Lafayette on Nov. 11 and tip off the conference season against Michigan State on Dec. 23.
”I think people are going to see our progress by the time we hit the court,” said forward Jordan Murphy, who was a member of the Big Ten’s All-Freshman team last season. ”I don’t think we’re worried about proving people wrong. It’s more about getting better day by day.”
Pitino added local prep star Amir Coffey, whose father Richard is a former Gophers standout, and gets transfers Reggie Lynch from Illinois State and Akeem Springs from UW-Milwaukee to help try to breathe new life into the program. And with new athletic director Mark Coyle, who comes back to Minnesota from traditional college hoops power Syracuse, evaluating things, it’s time for the Gophers to make their move.
”I know what they walked into and may have perceived of our program,” Pitino said. ”And I’m eager to show them what we’re all about. We’ve been as transparent as possible.”
Here are some things to watch with the Gophers this year:
COFFEY’S ARRIVAL: The Gophers have historically have had difficulty keeping some of the state’s best high school players from leaving for other programs. Landing Coffey, a 6-foot-8 guard, was a huge coup for Pitino, and he has looked as good as advertised during fall camp. ”He’s going to have to play major minutes and he’s going to have to do a little bit of everything,” Pitino said. ”I think it’s on me to figure out where to put him in spots to put the defense in a bind because he’s got that size.”
AKEEM’S TWEET: Springs raised eyebrows on Monday night when he tweeted that it ”looks like my time in Minnesota may be shorter than (I) thought. It’s all good though.” Pitino immediately called Springs to ask for an explanation and was told that Springs ”was just messing around.” Springs didn’t provide a whole lot of clarity on Tuesday. ”I didn’t mean anything. If you go through my history, I tweet a lot of stuff. It meant nothing. It was just a tweet,” he said. He said he has not thought about leaving the program. ”Akeem has been an awesome teammate,” Pitino said. ”He’s been a great leader. He has practiced his butt off. He’s about winning.”
BAD LUCK: The season got off to a bad start when Davonte Fitzgerald, a 6-8 post player, was lost for the season with a knee injury. Fitzgerald was injured in practice and the loss was a big blow for a team that was relying on his size and defense to give them more size in the paint.
LYNCH’S INJURY: Lynch had minor knee surgery earlier this fall and is still working his way back. Pitino said he would like for Lynch to play in the exhibition game against Bemidji State on Nov. 3, but they won’t rush him back if he’s not quite ready. Lynch said his knee is feeling much better and he was confident that he would be able to play in the season opener after sitting out last season after the transfer. ”I’ve been antsy for a year and a half,” Lynch said. ”It’s been a long time.”
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