College Basketball Nation: Zak Irvin


MINNEAPOLIS -- If he builds it, will players come?

Richard Pitino’s field of dreams is housed in a place that was built more than a decade before World War II. The Barn, completed in the 1920s, is the nostalgic home of Minnesota men’s basketball, a program Pitino agreed to lead last spring.

It’s also a team with a past that is scarred by scandal. The academic mess in the 1990s that erased a Final Four appearance and a Big Ten title from the record books. A rape investigation in the 1980s. Dozens of NCAA violations in the 1970s.

Minnesota won its first NCAA tournament game in more than a decade in March 2013. It hasn’t won a Big Ten championship -- an official conference title, at least -- since 1982.

There’s smeared ink on the Book of Minnesota. Missing chapters, too.

And the only way for Pitino -- and every coach trying to rebuild a Division I program -- to change things is by luring better players to Minneapolis. It’s that easy and that complicated.

Minnesota's 63-60 loss to Michigan on Thursday could have been a positive step for Pitino and his program.

The Gophers outplayed an incomplete Michigan squad for a chunk of the night. Preseason All-American Mitch McGary didn’t play. And sophomore NBA prospect Glenn Robinson III missed most of the second half with an ankle injury.

But that’s when John Beilein turned to Nik Stauskas (14 points, seven assists), Zak Irvin (15 points, 5-for-8 from the 3-point line) and Jon Horford (14 points, nine rebounds). That resilience was a sign of Michigan’s depth and overall quality.

It wasn’t always this way, though.

So Beilein understands Pitino’s position.

Before he had a national title contender and a Wooden Award winner named Trey Burke, he had a team that hadn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 1998. In 2007, Beilein left West Virginia and accepted the charge of reinvigorating a program that had consistently failed to equal the success attained by the Fab Five. Much like Minnesota, Beilein had an old arena and no practice facility. And his chief rival Tom Izzo -- the equivalent of Bo Ryan to Minnesota -- had the edge on local talent.

In his sixth season, however, Beilein guided Michigan to the national championship game with an elite crew. And he boosted his team’s recruiting pipeline, ensuring a bright outlook for the squad.

[+] EnlargeRichard Pitino
AP Photo/Jim MoneMinnesota coach Richard Pitino gestures during the loss to Michigan.
Pitino’s roster lacks the NBA-level athletes and top recruits who anchor Beilein’s roster. That gap was evident in Thursday’s matchup.

When his two NBA prospects, McGary and Robinson, were unavailable against the Gophers, a pair of former top-100 recruits helped the Wolverines thrive.

Although he struggled from the field (1-of-4), freshman Derrick Walton Jr. (30th in the 2013 class, per RecruitingNation) was out there, too.

Only a healthy program can win a Big Ten road game with its two best players sidelined by injuries.

“You don’t think about what you don’t have,” Beilein said.

It helps when the next guy in line is a former McDonald’s All-American nominee (Irvin).

Beilein has two four-star recruits, Kameron Chatman and Ricky Doyle, in his 2014 class, which should allow Beilein to sustain this level of success.

That’s what Pitino wants.

“I think it’s all about patience, to be honest,” Pitino said. “And I know that’s a bad word in sports. I understand that. I think it’s all about recruiting and each class has got to get better than the next. And every player that you bring in, you’ve gotta bring in with great potential. You’ve just gotta stay positive. … We understand that it’s all about recruiting. It really is. All about building that culture.”

Added Beilein: “I think he’s well on his way.”

That’s what separates the best from the rest in this game. Everything starts with talent. It’s natural to talk schemes and coaching and experience when assessing teams and their potential. But it’s more relevant to discuss the role that personnel plays in building a program.

If Pitino doesn’t sign young stars, he won’t transform Minnesota into a Big Ten title contender.

The end.

Beilein faced the same predicament and external hopes when he arrived.

But he had some assistance. Michigan has completed both a renovation of Crisler Arena and the construction of a new practice facility in recent years.

“We recruited pretty good players with pictures,” Beilein said. “It’s the efficiency with which we can operate. We can have guys shoot-around at all times. We’re not juggling with the women’s team. We’re not juggling with other sports. It’s huge that we can just be efficient with our practice times and really get the most of it. … Obviously, it helps in recruiting. It certainly would hurt in recruiting if you don’t have it because everybody else in this league has it. So that’s a big thing.”

Facilities alone don’t guarantee an influx of talent. But they certainly matter.

“You know they’re committed to you,” Stauskas said. “You know with the practice facility they built, it just shows they’re willing to do whatever it takes to help us win. And last year with us going all the way to the national title game, it obviously shows that their investment is starting to pay off.”

There are no shovels in the ground on the Minnesota campus. No bulldozers moving dirt.

The practice facility is only a pipe dream that lacks the funding to become anything more than a fantasy.

The Barn should be torn down and replaced or renovated into a modern facility that is appealing to a new era of recruits that appreciate shiny things. Many supporters, however, view that as a blasphemous idea.

So the Gophers are, in many ways, stuck.

No new facilities. No sizable investment in basketball. Yet, miraculous results will be expected from the team’s backers in the coming years, even if things don’t change for Pitino the way they did for Beilein.

But Pitino doesn’t complain about his circumstances. He doesn’t have to.

Thursday’s Big Ten opener for Michigan and Minnesota told the story of two programs in separate realms.

One team is obviously equipped for the present and prepared for the future.

The other might need some more help just to get off the ground.

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