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Amid uncertainty at the U, Gopher coach Richard Pitino faces critical year

With benefactor Teague out of the picture, Pitino may find himself a lot more vulnerable than he thinks, even if the Louisville shadow never touches him.

There is this incredulous look Richard Pitino gives when fielding a question he considers absurd. His eyes narrow and his brow furrows, and if the topic really annoys him, he recoils slightly. I know this expression because I’m guilty of it myself. It’s a New York Italian thing.

Pitino shot one of those looks during University of Minnesota men’s basketball media day on Wednesday, when asked if he was worried that reports of on-campus stripper and sex parties at Louisville, where Pitino’s father Rick coaches and Pitino formerly worked as an assistant, might affect his own job.    

“No,” he said. “Not even a little part.”

He’s wrong.

Nonsense anywhere taints all boats. The Louisville mess – a basketball staffer reportedly hiring strippers to entertain and have sex with players and recruits, which Rick Pitino says he knew nothing about – reminds us all that the head of any program better be upstanding and vigilant, and make sure nothing reprehensible happens under his or her nose. No better example of that than in Pitino’s own athletic department. 

Pitino works at a university where the athletic director who hired him, Norwood Teague, a sexual harasser with a drinking problem, resigned in disgrace; where another senior administrator, Mike Ellis, remains on paid leave while the university investigates allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination; where the university investigated one sexual misconduct complaint against a football player, but dropped others because reporting students declined to cooperate; where Pitino kicked one of his players, Daquein McNeil, off the team last November following an arrest for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend.

That lack of institutional control and sound judgment means closer scrutiny for everyone, especially when the new athletic director comes on board next spring. And with benefactor Teague out of the picture, Pitino may find himself a lot more vulnerable than he thinks, even if the Louisville shadow never touches him. 

The second of Pitino’s two coaching stints under his father at Louisville – one season as associate head coach in 2011-12 – fell within the five-year period when director of basketball operations Andre McGee allegedly organized sex parties in Billy Minardi Hall, a dorm named for Rick Pitino’s late brother-in-law. Katina Powell, in her book, "Breaking Cardinal Rules," said McGee paid her $10,000 for about 20 of these events. If anyone desired sex with the strippers, including Powell’s three daughters, McGee paid for that too, she wrote. ESPN’s Outside the Lines corroborated many of the accounts. 

“I was there a year – three years total – and I never ever heard of any of that, saw any of that,” Richard Pitino said. “That would have shocked any of us, and that would have been addressed immediately.”

McGee and Powell could both face criminal charges, and truth tends to come out when the subpoenas start flying. Until then, the 33-year-old Pitino faces a career-defining challenge going into his third season – proving he can recruit and develop Big Ten talent. And he’s got two years, max, to do it.

Gone are the players Pitino inherited from Tubby Smith who carried the Gophers to an N.I.T. championship in Pitino’s first season, and missed postseason entirely in his second. Pitino recruits and walk-ons make up the entire 13-man roster, and nine are freshman and sophomores. None of the four returning upperclassmen made even honorable mention All-Big Ten last season. Big Ten media panel rated the Gophers 12th in the 14-team conference. 

“I never liked when people said, `Those aren’t your players,’ “ Pitino said, meaning Smith holdovers like Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins and Mo Walker. “We had great kids, they did a lot of good things, and they played their butts off for us and did a lot of great things. 

“There’s a feel now that every guy in the program was recruited to play the way we wanted to play. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to bat, whatever you bat, 1.000 on it. You’re going to make mistakes like everybody does… I think there are a lot of things to get excited about.”

The four-man freshman class is vital. Pitino needs all of them – small forward Ahmad “JR” Gilbert, power forward Jordan Murphy, and guards Kevin Dorsey and Dupree McBrayer – to play immediately. Murphy and Gilbert committed to the Gophers after coaching changes at their original choices, Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason respectively. A fifth freshman, former DeLaSalle High standout Jarvis Johnson, was medically barred due to a heart condition. 

“We need an impact from that class right away,” Pitino said. “Joey (King, a forward) and Carlos (Morris, a guard) are our only two seniors. They can’t play 35 minutes a game. So we need those other guys to be ready. And I don’t think there’s a whole lot of dropoff.”

Said King, who averaged 9.7 points last season: “Coach and I are really excited about how everybody is meshing so quickly, the returners and the new guys. That’s something I’m really fired up about. Sometimes with these young guys, you’re like, he might blossom his sophomore and junior year. That’s not the case with these guys. I think they’re ready to play right away and compete at the Big Ten level.”

Expect fans to squawk if the Gophers struggle through a non-conference schedule laced with more toughies than usual – N.I.T. semifinalist Temple in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Nov. 19 (and possibly Butler the following day); Clemson at Williams Arena on Nov. 30; and Oklahoma State in Sioux Falls, S.D. on Dec. 12. The Gophers open Big Ten play at Ohio State on Dec. 30.

Check back with the Gophers in February to see how the freshmen progressed. Pitino adds two transfers next season, 6-8 forward Davonte Fitzgerald from Texas A & M and 6-10 center Reggie Lynch from Illinois State by way of Edina.

Next season, not this one, should be the most telling. New athletic directors often whack a high-profile coach for a splashy hire to put their stamp on the program; that’s how Pitino landed here in the first place. A spring A.D. announcement keeps Pitino in place through 2016-17, giving him two years to make it to his first NCAA Tournament as a head coach.  If the Gophers rebound and defend in the most rugged conference in the country, they’ve got a chance.

“I look at it that every year is critical,” Pitino said. “My first two years were extremely critical to move the program forward, get everyone to understand the way we’re going to play, because I was such an unknown as a coach. I was only at F.I.U. for a year (as a head coach), and nobody really knew about us. So they’re all critical. How critical one is over the other, I can’t really say.

“I do know that this year is huge, next year is huge, and last year was huge. That’s the nature of being a basketball coach. People aren’t patient. I’m not patient. That’s kind of the way it works.”

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Comments (5)

It seems like

whenever a Timberwolves or Gopher article appears in this fine news source, it is one which centers on negativity. Both programs are young with relatively new coaches. I'd appreciate an occasional writing which would bring out positive attributes of the players, coaches, and the programs in general. The sports world is a tough scene these days without much wriggle room like in the old days before the constant scrutiny of fans and media.

Really?

One of my favorite columnist here is Britt Robson, who writes regularly and with great insight and affection for the Timberwolves. He writes as a student of the game, not a critic. Today's column on Flip is a perfect example.

All the talk in the world

All the talk in the world does not win basketball games. If Pitino wins games he will be ok, if he wins games with 2 or 3 Minnesota kids in his 9-10 man rotation each year, he will be here for ever!!.

Give the guy a chance....

Richard will do fine. This years team will be inconsistent, but the basketball program will be much stronger soon!

gophers

I'm not expecting much from this team. I'm not trying to be pessimistic but Pitino has stated Joey King is the best shooter on the team. That sounds like a team that desperately needs someone to step up because King is an incredibly hard working but very limited player that should not be who you rely on game after game.