Pitino building something in Minneapolis

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
2:08
AM ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- It’s eerie, really.

He stalks the sideline like him. When he pauses and folds his arms to survey the action on the floor, he stands just like him.

He enters the postgame press conference following 40 minutes of scrappy play against a nationally ranked opponent and his hair is still slick and neat. His father’s hair also stays flawless throughout the night.

If you close your eyes as he begins to speak, you don’t hear him.

He even sounds like Rick Pitino.

And he coaches through drama like him, too.

As Andre Hollins, his best player, limped to the locker room following a nasty ankle injury he’d suffered on his team’s first possession, Richard Pitino gathered his players and issued a charge.

“He said, ‘Our best player went down, but somebody needs to step up because we’re a team,” Minnesota forward Oto Osenieks said after his squad’s 81-68 victory over No. 9 Wisconsin on Wednesday night. “Players did.”

From that moment, the Gophers outplayed a Wisconsin squad that has now lost three in a row. But the Badgers’ woes -- beginning with another subpar defensive effort inside (Minnesota scored 48 points in the paint) -- were the sidebar.

Pitino dismissed his team’s chief rival at the Barn in his first season, a week after knocking off Ohio State in the same building.

That’s the story.

Minnesota is now an unlikely 4-3 Big Ten team with victories over Ohio State and Wisconsin. Entering the season, an NIT bid seemed reasonable for a squad that had lost all-conference big man Trevor Mbakwe and two other starters. Now, the Gophers are positioned for an NCAA tourney invite and a surprising finish in league play.

[+] EnlargeRichard Pitino
AP Photo/Jim MoneRichard Pitino has quickly turned Minnesota around.
After Wednesday’s win, it’s clear that Pitino is not just rebuilding. He’s hosting a season-long episode of “Pimp My Program.”

Maurice Walker came off the bench and dropped 18 points and nine rebounds. Malik Smith finished with 14. Dre Mathieu added 18 points. And Austin Hollins recorded a second-half dunk that rocked Twitter, the highlight of his 11-point, four-steal effort.

The Gophers shot 59 percent from the field against the typically stingy Badgers. They didn’t miss a free throw (11-for-11). Wisconsin never led.

Andre Hollins witnessed most of the action from the training room. When he rejoined his team on the bench after halftime, he had a boot on his right foot as a result of an injury that won’t be completely diagnosed until a Thursday morning MRI.

Once their top scorer left the court, the Gophers could have crumbled. Probably should have.

Instead, they -- pick the cliché -- pulled together. They regrouped. They overcame the odds.

There’s nothing typical, however, about this program’s rise in Pitino’s first year.

Two years ago, Mathieu, a 5-foot-9 point guard, was a walk-on at Morehead State who ultimately ended up playing for Central Arizona junior college when MSU wouldn’t offer him a scholarship. Smith wasn’t an all-conference player in the Sun Belt last year but he’s a solid presence for Pitino. Walker lost 65 pounds after Pitino told the big man that he’d have a hard time excelling in his up-and-down, pressing system.

There are many overachieving underdogs on this roster.

That’s why there’s a certain swagger that these Gophers boast now. They’ve taken on their coach’s mentality.

“Coach tells us we [have to] be confident,” Mathieu said. “Don’t have an ego but be confident and know that we can play with anybody in this conference if we play hard.”

When he arrived last spring, some wondered if the 31-year-old Pitino could vie in a league with Bo Ryan, Tom Izzo, Thad Matta and other tenured coaches who’ve been in the profession for as long as he’s been alive.

Pitino smiled and talked about how much he respects the coaches in the league when he faced questions about his youth and inexperience -- his one-year stint at Florida International last year was his first head coaching gig -- and whether they could be hindrances.

If he’s anything like his father, then he viewed those doubts as challenges.

Think I’m too young for this? Just wait.

The Gophers can feel that quiet fearlessness. They thrive on it.

If there’s anything that Ohio State and Wisconsin and other programs around the country have proven in recent weeks, however, it’s that winning streaks can be replaced with successive losses. Quickly.

Seasons can turn on one bad week, especially for a squad that could lose its best player for an undetermined stretch.

Pitino is certainly ahead of schedule, though.

“I didn’t have any type of expectations at the beginning of the year just because I really didn’t know what I was getting into at the beginning of the year,” Pitino said. “I do think that we’ve got very good chemistry when things are clicking.”

This start, by all accounts, has superseded what the program’s limits appeared to be when Pitino began this venture last spring.

Maybe he’s building something.

The wins and losses in the coming weeks -- and years -- will ultimately determine that.

But an odd thing happened after Wednesday’s win.

The Gophers hadn’t just defeated any Big Ten team. They’d upset Wisconsin without one of their top players.

The Gophers and Badgers hate one another. Proof?

“I tell people how much I respect [Wisconsin’s] program and Ryan and they look at me like they want to knock me out,” Pitino said.

Given the circumstances, those fans had every right to storm the court. Forget the unofficial rules about what’s proper in those situations.

Their new coach had just completed the best win of his first season, a victory that came against the team that those fans love to beat more than any team in the world. They could have turned the Barn into their afterparty.

But they stood there and cheered. They never left their seats.

Perhaps they didn’t move because Wednesday night’s outcome is slowly becoming the new expectation in Minneapolis.

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