Men's basketball: Pitino’s impact at Minnesota might be more substance than style
MINNEAPOLIS — Richard Pitino is less than half of Tubby Smith’s age.
That alone has brought a seismic shift for the Minnesota basketball program, with last week’s takeover by the 30-year-old Pitino. The energy of youth can always bring positive change, but the impact of Pitino’s arrival could prove to run deeper than that.
For all of the inconsistencies the Gophers revealed during six seasons under Smith, the most glaring might have been a lack of individual freshman-to-senior improvement. In a brief meeting with the team last Friday before Pitino was introduced to the public at Williams Arena, his message seemed to resonate with junior-to-be Andre Hollins.
“He said we’re going to do individual workouts before practice. He’s going to get with every player, and he’s going to run them, and he’s going to make sure that you’re working on your weaknesses,” Hollins said. “So I really like that. I’m really excited about that part.”
Whether it was a disconnect with players four decades younger than him or a disciplinarian style that didn’t always mesh with the personalities and mental states of the kids he was coaching, Smith and his staff had trouble turning prospects into standouts.
Hollins certainly got better from year one to two, but after scoring 41 points in a November game against Memphis he had a handful of rough performances in January and February when the Gophers needed more.
The confidence any good team needs from the point guard wasn’t always there. After a turnover or a foul or two, Hollins could find himself sitting out for long stretches of play. Pitino could provide more freedom. The new coach indicated he prefers players to not to be looking over their shoulder toward the bench after they make a mistake.
“That’s just an indication that Andre trusts him already,” former player and current radio analyst Spencer Tollackson said of the excitement expressed by Hollins last week. “If he’s willing to say that to the media, that’s a pretty good sign. Andre’s a kid who desperately wants to get better.”
Pitino also promised a fast style, fun for fans to watch and for the Gophers to play. He mentioned that a mere 142 words into his introductory statement at the news conference held to commemorate his hiring.
Smith’s teams weren’t supposed to be stodgy. Their goal was to use an aggressive hand-in-the-passing-lane approach to defense and turn those steals and blocks into fast breaks going the other way. At critical times, though, the Gophers struggled to maintain a pace against the Big Ten’s toughest pack-the-paint teams. They had trouble cracking the 50-point mark more than once this season.
Pitino said he wants full-court pressure after every made basket, and the Gophers certainly won’t be any more prone to slowing the ball down on offense. With a veteran backcourt led by Hollins, the roster Pitino has inherited should fit the style he’ll try to implement.
“If we’ve seen Joe Coleman have success, it’s always been in that fast-paced, up-and-down type of play,” Tollackson said, adding: “I just love his demeanor, in terms of how he talks about his style of play. It’s just refreshing to hear.”
Pitino said he “loved watching” the Gophers when he saw them on TV throughout the season.
“I know they have some great players, and hopefully we can go out and get some more great players,” Pitino said.
That’s another part of the challenge, perhaps the most important of all. Three heralded recruits, Tyus Jones, Reid Travis and Rashad Vaughn, are sitting in Pitino’s new recruiting backyard, the Twin Cities area.
“I love the fact he has so much energy,” said Zach Goring, the head coach at Apple Valley High School, where Jones just finished his junior season. “He’s not dwelling on what the Gophers don’t have. He’s trying to highlight what they do have and sell that.”
Jones has seven finalists, in alphabetical order: Baylor, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State. He joined the varsity as an eighth-grader, and Smith was at his first practice, the first coach to signal interest with his presence. Goring said he enjoyed all of his interactions with Smith and his assistants.
“They were always very good to us,” Goring said.
But going younger in this area probably can’t hurt the Gophers, either.
“Just in terms of being able to relate to a guy, if I was 18 years old I would relate more to a guy who was 30 and maybe listened to the same music I did and had a Twitter account,” Tollackson said. “I know Tubby worked hard, and all the assistants worked hard, but you just get the sense that Pitino is going to grind and put in those 80, 90 and 100-hour weeks. If anything, the fact that his last name is Pitino is going to drive him to work harder because he has a reputation to uphold.”