Jan 11, 2014; East Lansing, MI, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach Richard Pitino reacts to a play during the 2nd half of a game at Jack Breslin Student Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
The end of March into the beginning of April were not good times for athletic director Norwood Teague. Following a 21-win season and a win against UCLA in the NCAA Tournament, Teague cut the head off of what was seemingly momentum heading into next season by firing Tubby Smith.
Many felt that the head coaching search that proceeded was botched, after falling short on a handful of candidates before apparently settling with first-year head coach Richard Pitino.
Now, 20 games into the 2013-14 season, Teague has been vindicated as his pick for head coach already has two wins against Top 15 schools in a four game stretch — a feat accomplished only once with Smith as head coach in his six seasons at the helm.
With more than half the schedule behind Pitino and the Gophers, Minnesota, at 15-5 and 4-3 in the Big Ten, are in prime position to earn a second straight trip to March Madness. As the fourth place team in the conference behind Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa, the Gophers are also looking to crack the AP Top 25 for the first time this season. With a ranking, it’ll be the first of Pitino’s career and yet another tangible indicator that Pitino is driving the program in the right direction.
The next three games for Minnesota, against Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue, will be a test for the Gophers to prove to themselves and the NCAA Selection Committee that they’re for real. With Minnesota as the favorite in each of those three games, it becomes the responsibility of the coach to keep the team focused and not underestimate a unranked opponent.
Remember last year when the Gophers upset then No. 1 Indiana followed by a 29-point blow out of Penn State, then proceeded to lose three straight games to unranked Nebraska, Purdue and Illinois heading into March Madness? It was tough then not to blame Smith for letting loose with a seed all but locked up, but it’ll be hard not to blame the head coach again if Minnesota can’t come away with at least two wins in this next stretch.
Even with Minnesota’s leading scorer, Andre Hollins, likely out against Nebraska with a sprained ankle, somewhere lies the feeling that Pitino’s Gophers is different from Tubby Smith’s Gophers, and Minnesota will win the next three games.