Minnesota appeared to be in a transition period as Tubby Smith was fired and Rich Pitino, a young, energetic coach, became the new head man of Golden Gopher basketball. The Gophers' output this season certainly didn't reflect a transition though. Pitino quickly put together a quick and athletic squad that would go 25-13 and win the NIT championship.
Tubby Smith wasn't the only key piece the Gophers lost in the offseason. Three of Minnesota's top five scorers from 2012-13 departed. Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe's who both averaged and made up the Gophers' entire starting front court both graduated, and Joe Coleman transferred to St. Mary's.
Losing Mbakwe and Williams left a huge hole in the front court. Center Elliott Eliason played just 13.7 minutes per game and averaged 2.2 points per game in 2012-13, and big man Maurice Walker weighed about 300 pounds. Pitino wanted forwards who could run the floor and keep up with his fast break offense.
Walker proved to Pitino he had the desire to play, losing 40 pounds in the offseason. Having arrived on campus in 2010, Walker weighed about 340 pounds. Now he's roughly 250 pounds and one of the Gophers' key contributors. He averaged 7.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game this season. Eliason upped his game too, averaging 5.0 points and 6.6 rebounds per game as he split minutes with Walker.
The rest of the Gopher squad played right into Pitino's system. Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins, unrelated but both from Tennessee, had always wanted to push the pace a little more and possessed the agility to do so. Pitino also brought in transfer Deandre Mathieu, a lightning-quick 5'9" point guard, who played alongside the Hollins boys in the backcourt. All three finished the season averaging in double figures.
Malik Smith and Joey King, two more transfers, became strong role players and provided solid 3-point shooting. King shared time with junior Oto Osenieks at the four spot, bringing some size to the floor for Minnesota. Pitino had all the pieces he needed to compete right away.
The Gophers cruised through non-conferene play, going 11-2. Their lone losses came in the Maui Invitational, falling to Syracuse and Arkansas before beating Chaminade in the consolation round. Florida State and Richmond were the only RPI top 100 teams Minnesota beat in the non-conference, but for the most part, they took care of business.
The conference season was filled with highs and lows for Minnesota. They started strong, competing with Michigan, beating Ohio State and taking Michigan State to overtime. They got a huge win at home against Wisconsin on Jan. 22, but Andre Hollins got injured less than a minute into the game, leading to a downward spell in the following weeks.
The Gophers went on a three game losing streak, falling at Nebraska, home against Northwestern and at Purdue. If not for the injury to Andre Hollins, it's likely that Minnesota would've won several of those games and made the NCAA tournament.
However, there was still hope of going dancing in mid-February. Hollins returned and the Gophers got wins against Indiana and Northwestern before losing a tough one to Illinois at home. With four regular season games left, the Gophers were 6-8 in conference and 17-10 overall, in the fight for a tournament bid.
They finished conference play 2-2, defeating Iowa and Penn State and losing to Ohio State and Michigan. Entering the Big Ten tournament, analysts believed the Gophers needed two victories to get into the dance. And they were right. After beating Penn State again, the Gophers were creamed by Wisconsin in a 26-point slaughtering, bursting Minnesota's bubble.
Pitino wasn't done just yet though. The Gophers drew a one seed in the NIT and cruised past High Point, St. Mary's and Southern Miss en route to Madison Square Garden for the NIT's semifinals.
Mathieu and Austin Hollins each chipped in 17 points against Florida State in the semis, leading the Gophers to an overtime victory 67-64. With Rick Pitino attempting to coach up his son from the stands, Rich led Minnesota to a hard-fought 65-63 win in the NIT championship. Austin Hollins closed out his Gopher career with 19 points and 4 steals, and the Gophers cut down the nets in the Garden.
There's no doubt that the Gophers exceeded expectations this season. Losing Mbakwe and Williams could have been detrimental to the squad, but Walker, Eliason and King really stepped up to provide a presence in the post and on the boards. While Pitino's system seemed to fit the personnel, it was an offense unfamiliar to the Gophers and could have created a long transition period. But they learned quickly and at the end of the season, they were NIT champions.
Pitino will bring back most of the squad next year. He loses three guards, but Austin Hollins is the only big departure. After just one season, the foundation is there for Minnesota to become a contender in the Big Ten. Once Pitino starts bringing in guys suit for his system, NIT championships will just be an afterthought for Minnesota basketball.