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Maybe Minnesota just isn’t a basketball school

How many coaches have to cycle through here before officials acknowledge what should have been obvious a long time ago: Middle-of-the-pack Big Ten finishes, with an occasional NCAA Tournament appearance, are the best Gopher fans can hope for.

Richard Pitino
Richard Pitino wasn’t ready for this job, and still hasn’t grown into it.
MinnPost file photo by Jana Freiband

More than twelve years ago, Dan Monson was forced out as men’s basketball coach at the University of Minnesota because athletic director Joel Maturi thought someone else could do better.

Maturi appeared right at first. But ultimately, he was wrong.

Almost six years ago, athletic director Norwood Teague fired Tubby Smith because he, too, thought someone else could do better.

Teague was wrong. Spectacularly.

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Now, U athletic director Mark Coyle has a decision to make about Richard Pitino, whose sixth season plods along. Thursday night’s 69-60 loss to No. 7 Michigan at Williams Arena, a game the Wolverines dominated until the final minutes, didn’t help Minnesota’s borderline NCAA Tournament chances. The flustered Gophers shot poorly, defended badly and trailed by 21 points in the second half while falling to 17-10 overall and 7-9 in Big Ten Conference play. That left the Gophers in danger of missing the NCAAs for the second consecutive season and fifth time in Pitino’s tenure.

“It was one of those things where we let our offense totally affect everything else,” Pitino said at his postgame press conference, with Coyle in the back of the room. That sounded familiar to anyone who has been around awhile. When Pitino finished, he headed quickly for the elevator, followed closely by Coyle.

How many coaches have to cycle through here before Minnesota officials acknowledge what should have been obvious a long time ago: Middle-of-the-pack Big Ten finishes, with an occasional NCAA Tournament appearance, are the best Gopher fans can hope for. Fawning exposure from the Big Ten Network and ESPN hasn’t made Minnesota a basketball destination. And the handful of Minnesota prep standouts good to enough to play anywhere depart happily  for Duke or another name school.

It comes down to one thing: The Gophers’ failure to consistently qualify for NCAA Tournament. It’s happened only five times since 2000 — once under Monson, three times under Smith, and once under Pitino. Recruits considering Minnesota risk going their entire college career without making the Big Dance. That’s too big a negative. The new practice facility puts the Gophers on equal ground with most programs, but NCAA appearances matter more than plush lounges and 24-hour key cards.

If Monson, who took unheralded Gonzaga to the Elite Eight before coming to Dinkytown, and Smith, who led Kentucky to one national title and ten NCAA Tournament appearances in ten seasons, couldn’t win enough here, who can? Monson inherited NCAA-imposed scholarship reductions and recruiting limits from the Clem Haskins-era academic scandal and helped restore the program’s credibility. He’s still coaching at Long Beach State, where he enjoyed modest success post-Minnesota, winning three Big West Conference titles with one NCAA bid.

For all the carping about Smith’s age and energy level, his tenure here shines a lot better in hindsight: Five 20-win seasons out of six, with three NCAA Tournament appearances and another in National Invitation Tournament. Smith proved you could succeed here without cheating, and his last season was his best, but that didn’t stop Teague from thinking he could upgrade.

Instead, after Shaka Smart and others turned him down, Teague settled for a downgrade: A 30-year-old with a famous last name and one season of mid-major head coaching experience at Florida International. Pitino wasn’t ready for this job, and still hasn’t grown into it. His 38-68 conference record is worse than Smith’s (46-62) or Monson’s (36-60), which shouldn’t be surprising. Asking a newbie to match coaching chops with all-timers like Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan and John Beilein is asking a lot. Pitino never should have been put in that position.

And yet, branding him a loser and a failure isn’t right either. It took Rick Pitino, Richard’s father, five seasons in his first head coaching stint at Boston University to reach the NCAA Tournament. Boston College basketball is everything in Boston; every other program might as well be Division III for all the coverage they get. So Pitino learned his craft and made his mistakes without the daily scrutiny his son faces. Two years after Pitino departed B.U. for the Big East and Providence, he took the Friars to the Final Four.

That’s why Coyle should stick with Pitino a while longer, unless — and only unless — former Timberwolves player and front office executive Fred Hoiberg shows interest. Even then, Coyle should tread carefully. Hoiberg, the former Iowa State and Chicago Bulls coach, must agree to stay five years and not chase the next NBA coaching vacancy. And the U must let in junior college kids similar to those Hoiberg recruited to Iowa State, kids that quickly lifted Cyclones back to national prominence.

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Otherwise, Pitino should be given the chance for more growth. His recruiting has been spotty. Rugged senior forward Jordan Murphy proved the perfect Minnesota recruit, a three-star high school talent from Texas with a five-star work ethic who made himself into one of the Big Ten’s best players. Junior swingman Amir Coffey, probably Pitino’s best home state recruit, improved as well. The development of Coffey and another Minnesotan, freshman center Daniel Oturu, show Pitino and his staff can teach. That’s critical.

But Pitino has yet to land as impactful a player from the New York metro, his home recruiting base, as Murphy, Coffey or Oturu. Greater New York produces fewer top players than it used to, and losing assistant coach Kimani Young to UConn last summer diminished Pitino’s efforts there. With Chicago product Rob Jeter, a former assistant to Ryan at Wisconsin, replacing Young, expect the Gophers to tilt more heavily toward Chicagoland — a smarter call in the long run.

Coyle, like Teague, is a basketball guy. He worked at Kentucky and Syracuse, both rich in basketball tradition, and it doesn’t take much to get him going on college basketball history. The Pitino legacy resonates with him. I’ve never sensed any lack of support or respect for Pitino, though Coyle undoubtedly compiled a list of potential replacements in case Pitino suddenly leaves. It’s hard to imagine Coyle firing Pitino, or Pitino landing a better job with his resume. But stranger things have happened. Just check the Gopher women’s basketball sideline.

Either way, an NCAA Tournament bid enhances Pitino’s standing. Thursday night’s loss didn’t help. Against one of the best defensive teams in the nation, the Gophers fell apart, missing nine of ten 3-pointers and half of their 18 foul shots. Championship teams handle pressure and persevere, but the Gophers too often come up short, no matter who walks the sideline of the Barn’s raised court.

A gracious Beilein said he assumes Minnesota will make the NCAA Tournament — “They’re good enough to,” he said — but the Gophers sit 52nd in the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET), the new ranking system used to seed the tournament. Thirty-six at-large teams make the 68-team field, and ESPN projects Minnesota as one of the last four teams in. Games Sunday at Rutgers and next Thursday at Northwestern, both unranked, loom as must-haves before the Gophers finish with No. 15 Purdue here and No. 24 Maryland on the road.

“We’ve got four more games and the conference tournament,” Pitino said. “They don’t end it early. I’m excited about Rutgers and getting these guys’ confidence going.”