Saturday, April 05, 2014

Minnesota: 2014 NIT Champions


NEW YORK -- As time wound off the clock at Madison Square Garden on a rainy Thursday night, Richard Pitino looked frazzled.
He tugged at his chin. He kept reshuffling his beige suit jacket. His nerves were tangibly bothering him in late in the second half. But with the game's last possession seconds away, Pitino did the only thing he's known how to do since he was a boy. He turned to his dad for advice.
As he peered to his right, he found Rick Pitino sitting behind him with former Louisville star Peyton Siva in the sea of gold and burgundy apparel from the Golden Gopher faithful. Siva cast a wide grin and the elder Pitino was coaching his son from the first row. Pitino was seconds away from his first title of any kind in his first year at Minnesota.

"My dad played him [Larry Brown and SMU] twice, and I learned that we have totally different teams," Pitino said during his post-game press conference with his daughter in his lap.And as he cut down the nets with his season ending in success, there was finally a distinction between the younger and older Pitino. Only one had lifted any type of championship hardware in 2014 between the NCAA and NIT Tournaments.
"We did speak about [the championship game], but having my whole family being behind the bench was a lot of fun. Hopefully this is just the beginning for me at Minnesota. My family knows how much I brag about it here."
Pitino has every right to brag about his strong first season. The Golden Gophers finished their campaign under the second-year coach with 25 wins, the first time they've reached that mark since the 1996-97 season where they finished 31-4 and went to the Final Four, which was counted as "unofficial" due to academic fraud charges.
Last season ended in a third round loss in the NCAA Tournament and Tubby Smith being fired. This season seemed to infuse the Golden Gophers with new life. With Pitino at the helm, there is now a concrete answer for Minnesota's future in the Big 10.
"When your name is Pitino, you're going to be a great coach and this kid has done a phenomenal job," Larry Brown said following his team's loss. "[Elder Pitino] was at practice. I'm sure he told them ways to beat us because [Louisville] beat us twice."
Pitino found a way to get his players to buy into his methodology very early. He started by changing the culture in the locker room at Minnesota currently and for his upcoming years with the Golden Gophers by signing three three-star athletes to replace his graduating seniors.
Austin Hollins, the Golden Gophers' senior leader, hit a three late in the contest that sent SMU packing. And to him, it was just an extension of Pitino's coaching all season.
Hollins said his work ethic increased since Pitino came to Minnesota and the outcome was the NIT championship.
"There's a number of things," Hollins said when asked what Pitino has taught him in one season. "Going out there and playing as hard as you can, he expects perfection and I think that was one thing this year that he's gotten out of me. He's pushed my game to the highest level it could be."
The long-practices, the grueling tape sessions and the 13 loses, the blemishes on his first season were easily forgotten for an instance.As Pitino climbed the crimson ladder on the far end of the Garden's golden hardwoods and cut the net down with a horde of Gopher fans surrounding the court, he paused before turning forward. He pointed to each of his players and hoisted the net above his grey, silvery mane to the applause of hundreds.
Pitino achieved in one season what many coaches fail to do over a tenure at their respective universities: he got his team to buy-in to his message. The 31-year old coach got the Golden Gophers walking out of Madison Square Garden with a confident strut of royalty.
"The guys that were here," Pitino said. "Coach Smith recruited great people, people with substance. All kids that when they are don playing basketball, are going to be very successful off the court. They are all great representatives of the University of Minnesota. And then the guys that we brought in were similar to those guys, easy to get along with, easy to coach. Never any issues. We had great chemistry from the start."
"For them to walk off champions," Pitino continued. "and for the guys coming back to understand what it takes to take that next step is exciting for us. I'm fired up for it. We can just keep moving forward as a program."
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