It’s time to recognize Richard Pitino. In the midst of a seven game winning streak, it looks like the Gophers are a lock for the NCAA Tournament. Impressive, considering Minnesota hasn’t been to the Big Dance since the 2012-13 season.
Pitino took over as the head coach in 2013-14 season and led the Gophers to an NIT Championship that season. The following season the team missed both the NCAA Tournament and NIT Tournament. In 2015-16 Pitino struggled with a young roster, suspensions and injuries, finishing the season with a disappointing record of 8-23.
This year will be the first time in years that the Gophers will be able to enjoy Selection Sunday, not having to sweat it out on the bubble. The Gophers are 22-7 overall and 10-6 in the Big Ten and Joe Lunardi has them projected as a 7 seed at the moment.
It looks like the best case NCAA Tournament scenario would be a 4 seed if the Gophers can win their final two conference games and take home the Big Ten Tournament title. Even if that doesn't happen, there won’t be many complaining about the job Pitino has done with this team. Everyone is now happy with Pitino. That wasn't the case last year at this time.
This season has been quite a turnaround from last season. The team is now thriving under Pitino’s system and the coaches recruits are developing into top Big Ten performers. Guys like Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason were key recruits for Pitino and have grown with the head coach. Both Murphy and Mason took their bumps and bruises, but have improved and are now the leaders of this year’s squad.
Mason has developed into one of the Big Ten’s best leaders and is a scrappy defender that fits perfectly into Pitino’s high pace pressure system. He has also provided a consistent scoring punch, averaging 15 points and 5 assists per game. Murphy has been a double-double threat in his sophomore season. He is averaging 11 points and 8 rebounds on the season.
Not only did the bumps and bruises from prior seasons benefit players development, but it also gave this year’s squad a toughness that came in handy. When talking about this team you can’t forget the five-game losing streak they suffered throughout the month of January. Minnesota hung tough though, rattling off seven straight wins in response to said losing streak.
The final step in the process for this year’s team was adding freshman stud Amir Coffey and transfer Akeem Springs. Coffey has been a reliant scorer, averaging 12 points per game. As an added bonus for Pitino, Coffey has been efficient as a young player that is counted on for Minnesota to be successful. While adjusting to the college game Coffey is currently shooting 45% from the field and 32% from three.
Springs has provided leadership and has made timely shots all season, shooting 39% from three and averaging 10 points per game. The final missing ingredient Pitino added this summer is freshman Eric Curry. Curry has been an energy guy off the bench, averaging 5 points, 5 rebounds and nearly 1 block per game.
All things considered, this year’s turnaround has Richard Pitino in position to possibly land the Big Ten Coach of the Year award, with only Chris Collins of Northwestern likely being the other contender. While Northwestern possibly making the dance is probably the bigger story, it should be noted Pitino has taken a Gopher team that won eight games last year (two in conference) and has them set to return to the NCAA Tournament AND possibly finish in the top four of the regular season standings.
His ability to turn things around in a hurry, thanks to his work on the recruiting trail and development of his younger players, should give create a strong case for Pitino taking home the accolade this year.