Alright Minnesota Sports Fans,
Well, or not… maybe a couple people… cchhmm (throat clearing)….
Richard Pitino is going to be the greatest coach to have ever walked the sideline of the infamous raised court in Williams Arena. That’s right. Soak it in…
Stop yelling at me now and let me explain myself:
We are seeing it all unfold before our eyes. After a season where we thought he might not even make it to the next, Richard, or Little Ricky as I like to call him, Pitino is starting to row the boat in the right direction. It only took me a few sentences before I got a Fleckism in. After a season where the Gophers went 8-27, they currently sit tied for 6th place in the Big Ten with an 18-7 record. They still have six games to play before the Big Ten Tournament, with the first of those being tonight against Indiana at home, who aren’t who we thought they were… I looked at the schedule and the Gophers have two ranked teams left to play in Maryland (23) and Wisconsin (7). They are favored tonight by 6 points and should be favored in the other three (Michigan, Penn State, and Nebraska) which are all at The Barn.
Let’s say they lose the two against Maryland and Wisconsin and get upset in one of the other’s (because we are Minnesotans and that’s how we set our expectations). That means they enter the Big Ten Tournament with a 21-10 record as a lock to make the dance for the first time in Little Ricky’s tenure and the first time in four years. This also happens to be the last year Little Ricky WASN’T the men’s basketball coach at the U of M.
I agree that Little Ricky needed a decent season to save his job but the Gophers have done much more than that. I have watched just about every minute of every game this year and they look so much better than last year.
I recognized it in game 1. They just look different. They are bigger, faster, stronger, and LONGER. They are more confident. Something just clicked. They look like they belong on the court with just about anybody. They have lost leads late in games and kept their composure to come back and secure victories. They have hit big shots to stop runs at key times. I know, I know, pump the breaks. I get it, but let’s face it; this year is already a success.
If you would have told me at the beginning of the season that the Gophers would need to win just 2-3 of their last 6 games to make the NCAA Tournament, I would have taken that scenario and ran. That’s without a Big Ten Tournament win. This team was TERRIBLE last year. It was legitimately hard to watch. What happened between then and now is what has already proven the type of coach Little Ricky is.
He went out and got the two top recruits Minnesota had to offer last year, according to 247 Sports, in Amir Coffey (Hopkins) and Michael Hurt (John Marshall – Rochester). Amir Coffey is the standout as he is averaging over 32 minutes per game (2nd on the team) with a stat line of 12.2 PPG, 3.8 APG, and 3.3 RPG. Hurt hasn’t started quite as fast but he is still just a freshman and still averages a little over 6 minutes a game. Center, Eric Curry has been the other big freshman pickup who averages 20 minutes a game with 6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. Pitino plucked him from Memphis, TN. He has proven to be crucial especially with Reggie Lynch’s consistent foul trouble. Those pickups were essential for the team’s future but the two pickups that are the most genius in my eyes, are the two that made me roll my eyes when I first heard about them.
I heard that the Gophers brought over a transfer big man named Reggie Lynch, last year, while he sat out due to NCAA transfer rules. I heard some good things but he was still a guy who was already going to be a junior and he was coming over from Illinois State so I had seen that type of story before. Then, with a stroke of luck, after the season a new rule was implemented that allowed students to play their “senior” season with another team, without losing a year of eligibility due to NCAA transfer rules (like Lynch had to), by graduating with an undergraduate degree and then enrolling at the new school as a graduate student. This allowed a sharp-shooting guard named Akeem Springs to move from Wisconsin-Milwaukee to the U of M for his senior year of eligibility. Just another JUCO transfer in my eyes.
I could not have been more wrong about both guys. Those two have been the two most important players on the team, unless you want to create an argument for Nate Mason, which I am fine with. Reggie Lynch is a BEAST down low where he averages 3.2 blocks per game which ranks 3rd in the nation and is the anchor to our really good defense. Akeem Springs is one of the locker room leaders, according to all accounts I have read, in his first and only year here while averaging over 24 minutes per game with 10 points. In the last 6 games, since he got put into the starting lineup, he is averaging about 35 minutes per game and over 15 points. Since the promotion, it has been clear that Springs is the guy Pitino is going to in a big spot, when a 3-pointer is needed. I am just shocked that Little Ricky was able to find these guys and then get them to come here while having the confidence in them to make the impact he needed them to so quickly.
Little Ricky’s in-game coaching will need some work going forward as he is young and still trying to figure out exactly what his system is. He has gone from a constant defensive full-court press team, in his first season, to more of a half-court trap system this year. It has worked though as the Gophers currently rank 16th in the NCAA in Defense, according to teamrankings.com. Pitino decided to focus on game-planning, film, and walkthroughs before last game against Rutgers easing back on practice and conditioning time, to make sure his team was well rested. He believes rebounding is what wins in the Big Ten and he was going up against a top 10 ranked rebounding team nationally. The Gophers won that rebounding battle 40-34 while grabbing 14 of them offensively. The rebounding battle proved to be key in the win, as the game analysts referenced many times. Here, Little Ricky is showing how advanced he is with smart game preparation at his young age.
Little Ricky’s recruiting skills are really starting to blossom as he had a very good class this year, as I went into a little earlier, but has also secured some top recruits for next year. His top recruit, Isaiah Washington, is a 4-star recruit (62 overall nationally) and Jamir Harris is another 3-star. 2018 looks like it will be even better as he has already gotten a verbal commitment from in-state recruit Daniel Oturu, another 4-star who currently ranks 58 in the country, in his class. Little Ricky is also favored to land 4-star recruit Race Thomson in 2018 who is also an in-state kid. The Gophers are also SERIOUS contenders for 5-STAR recruit Matthew Hurt out of Rochester whose brother we already talked about (Michael), already a freshman at the U and coming off the bench in a limited role.
I didn’t mention Pitino’s high-end and brief assistant career, genes, and upbringing. You can read plenty about that just about anywhere you Google, if you have been living on Mars, and haven’t heard yet. All of that, along with what I have mentioned in this article, will lead to Little Ricky Pitino being the greatest coach to ever dawn the maroon and gold neck tie. However, before we knight Little Ricky as the first coach to lead the Gophers to a Final Four since 199-…I mean ever… let’s pump the breaks again.
I am not saying Little Ricky will be this great coach in Minnesota. When he does succeed here and win a couple games in the dance, whether it is next year or the year after, big teams will come calling with big offers. The U of M has shown that it is willing to pay a pretty penny for a winning coach. They have already paid a hefty extension enlarging Pitino’s buyout and also just paid “Fleck Fever” 3.5 million per year to coach the football team (2 million more per year than Clays who preceded him). However, either Little Ricky will have the desire to try and make Minnesota the Duke of the Big Ten (I am not saying he has anywhere near the capability to go that far…relax), where he wants totry and bring a team with no history to prominence, or he will leave like 95% of them do, when given the opportunity.
MinnesotaSportsFan.com – @realmnsportsfan
*Stats Courtesy of ESPN.com and NCAA.com along with references in article