COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Just a couple of months ago, Richard Pitino was widely considered to be on the hot seat at Minnesota.
Google “Richard Pitino” and “Hot Seat”and you’ll find examples from as recently as November and December.
Yet a couple of months and seven straight wins later, Minnesota is one of the hottest teams in the country. The Gophers took down No. 24 Maryland at the Xfinity Center Wednesday night and followed it up with a home win Saturday against Penn State. Pitino’s squad was coming off of wins against Indiana (45) and Michigan (27) going into the road test in College Park which it passed.
Now, as Adam Zagoria wrote on FanRagSports.com, Richard Pitino and his father, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, are poised to make history as the first father/son tandem to ever serve as head coaches in the same NCAA Tournament.
“We’re a good team, we’ve gotta accept it, Richard Pitino said after the Maryland game. “We’ve got a lot of quality wins. We got a lot of tough kids and we got no ego and great chemistry.”
Pitino’s first year at the Big Ten school went well, ending with a 25-13 record and an NIT title. It may not be the most prestigious honor, but the NIT championship has previously served as a launching pad for future success.
Year Two saw a step back, though, and Year Three spiraled into disarray as the Gophers stumbled to an 8-23 record. There was talent on the roster, but the results just weren’t there.
An influx of freshmen and transfers helped the team get off to a 15-2 start and turned off the heat. It also got Minnesota into the AP Top 25 for the first time in four years.
Unfortunately, a five-game skid wiped the smiles off of Gopher faithful faces. The first setback came at Michigan State (No. 52 overall in KenPom), 65-47. Then consecutive two-point losses occurred at Penn State (81) and home against Wisconsin (19) before Ohio State (61) on the road and Maryland (37) at home.
With a tougher-than-usual draw in the Big Ten’s unbalanced schedule, a recovery seemed unlikely.
“We were not a confident group,” Pitino said. “You could just tell we had the weight of the world on our shoulders where now we do not.”
Maryland came into the most recent game having lost two straight and four of its last six, but is still a solid team.
“Playing in this building is very challenging,” Pitino stated. “For our guys to go get some wins versus some really good teams, on the road, is a testament to our mental toughness.”
The game was tightly contested until a 9-0 run late in the second half busted Minnesota ahead as it broke away for the comfortable win. The Gophers slowed Maryland’s primary threat in Melo Trimble and clamped down defensively to confidently take the win.
Living squarely on the bubble since the losing streak, Minnesota (22-7, 10-6 Big Ten) is now well-positioned for an at-large bid and could also earn a top-four finish in the Big Ten, which would mean a double bye in the conference tournament. This group could make some noise in the postseason.
“We’re starting to believe,” Pitino said. “I don’t need to tell them to.”
The Gophers are getting it done with a balanced scoring attack and fervent defense. Junior guard Nate Mason, who enjoyed the Maryland win in front of about 70 friends and family members in the stands, has noticed a change in the locker room.
“We’re trusting the coaching staff and we’re trusting our defense and that’s leading us to victory,” he said. “(Down the stretch) we were so focused on defense and it fed into our offense… Once we get in the break in transition we feel no one can stop us.”
Mason was ecstatic about the breakthroughs Minnesota has made in his time there.
“I can’t explain it,” he shared with a laugh. “Just coming from my first two years, to come in here, be able to get wins, having win streaks. It’s funny because we would have never thought after the last two years that we could do this kind of thing.”The Gophers are sitting just outside of the Top 25 in the AP and Coaches’ Polls, but can break through with a marquee matchup in their regular season finale Sunday against Wisconsin or by making a run in the Big Ten Tournament. Minnesota has only made it past the first round of the NCAA Tournament once since being hit with heavy sanctions in the late ‘90s. This could be the second and there could be many more in the future. Next year’s team adds key recruits Isaiah Washington of St. Raymond’s in The Bronx and Jamir Harris of The Parick School (N.J.), only loses one key player and will have all the pieces in place for a deep tournament run.