Firing Richard Pitino is Looking Like a Massive Mistake by Minnesota

NCAA Basketball: New Mexico at Air Force
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Richard Pitino and the New Mexico Lobos have started the season with an impressive 10-1 record. The Lobos are even receiving votes for a spot in the AP Top-25. The Lobos’ schedule isn’t the strongest in the country but that’s life in the Mountain West.

Pitino & Co are efficiently handling teams they should, for the most part. Their only loss on the season came vs #24 ranked (at the time) St. Mary’s in game 2. New Mexico’s best win of the early season came over Louisiana Tech, only one of two L’s on their 2023-24 schedule.

Related: Braeden Carrington Steps Away from Gophers Men’s Basketball Team

All this with their two best players Jamal Mashburn (18 PPG) and Jalen House (17 PPG) missing half of the Logos games with injury. Gopher fans might remember Mashburn from his two years wearing maroon and gold. Both House and Mashburn were All-Mountain West selections in 2022-23.

2023-24 New Mexico Lobos a Final Four contender?

Pitino’s Fighting Lobos have even gained hype as a possible Final Four team. Yes, you read that right. According to FOX broadcaster John Fanta, New Mexico isn’t just a tournament team. They’re a National Championship contender.

richard pitino new mexico lobos minnesota gophers

Richard Pitino exceeding expectations in the valley

Richard Pitino is in his 3rd season as the coach at New Mexico, and it’s safe to say he’s exceeding expectations. Pitino, who spent 8 full seasons at Minnesota and one season at Florida International before that, could never quite live up to the standards Gopher fans set for him.

The Lobos are off to a blazing hot start for the second consecutive season. Last year, they gained recognition nationally for an impressive 14-0 start,even climbing into the top 25. However, their momentum faltered after a loss to conference rival Fresno State, triggering a downward spiral.

Related: Gophers Dawson Garcia Will Miss at Least One Game with Injury

Still, the Lobos finished the 2022-23 with a 22-12 record, after a quarterfinal exit in the Mountain West Tournament against Utah State. Despite securing a #2 seed in the NIT, a tournament he won in his debut as Gophers head coach, lost to Utah Valley in the first round.

Richard Pitino > Ben Johnson

Sure, Richard Pitino had a hard time keeping the borders closed (because he didn’t really care to). And yeah, he had a hard time winning crucial conference road games. Obviously, the man has his flaws, but did Mark Coyle move to fast in firing him?

Pitino’s held a 141-123 career record as Gophers head coach. His 54-96 record in Big Ten play felt like a disappointment three years ago, now looks a lot more palatable. His replacement, Ben Johnson, holds a 30-41 record as Minnesota’s head coach, including an absolutely dreadful 7-33 conference record.

When the Gophers hired Ben Johnson, many fans saw it as a breath of fresh air. He was a hometown kid who played at DeLaSalle and wore a Minnesota uniform in college. He was known for his recruiting skills, which generated even more excitement among fans convinced that closing the recruiting borders around the state would lead to consistent NCAA tournament runs.

Related: Ben Johnson Found a Future Star in True Freshman Cam Christie

I’m going to be honest. I worried about what would happen after Pitino was fired, even before it happened. I mean, every season, regardless of record, the Gophers had a competitive team under Richard and he had a way of finding talent that others didn’t, whether he had to go international or into the transfer portal (before it was popular).

When Richard Pitino coached the Gophers it felt like they had a shot at victory, no matter who, when or where they played. I’m not surprised in the slightest how easily he seems to be putting the New Mexico basketball program back together. I get sad thinking about what could’ve been…

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