MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino didn’t express public concern over his future nor the direction of the program as losses stacked toward the end of this season. Pitino’s confidence backed up Friday when a source confirmed to the Pioneer Press that he will return to the University of Minnesota next season.
Athletics Director Mark Coyle had met with Pitino on Friday and issued this statement: “Richard understands my high expectation for our program, which is to compete at a championship level.”
But Pitino has had an inconsistent seven seasons at Minnesota, including a regression to 15-16 this season. He has a 127-108 overall record at Minnesota, including 48-82 in Big Ten games.
Last year, Pitino’s team reached the second round of the NCAA tournament last season, and in April, Coyle rewarded Pitino with a two-year contract extension through the 2023-24 campaign.
“I am excited for Coach Pitino to continue to lead our men’s basketball program,” Coyle’s statement read last spring. “Coach Pitino has developed All-Big Ten players, led deep runs into the Big Ten tournament and earned the school’s ninth (official) NCAA tournament win. …. I look forward to him advancing the program further in the upcoming years.”
But his team fell off the NCAA tournament bubble, starting in February with only three wins in their final 11 regular season Big Ten games. Five of those losses were by six or fewer points and a lack of late-game execution from one of the youngest teams in a deep conference was a big reason why.
Pitino’s up-and-down tenure began positively in his first season in 2013-14 as the U won the National Invitational Tournament. But then he missed the postseason the next two years.
In 2016-17, he won Big Ten Coach of the Year and took the U to the NCAA tournament before an opening round loss to Middle Tennessee State. But in 2017-18, injuries and suspensions resulted in a 15-17 record and no postseason play.
After the program’s second official March Madness win in 20 years last spring, the U again fell off that mark with another losing season. Minnesota beat Northwestern in the first-round of the Big Ten tournament on Wednesday before the rest of the tournament was canceled Thursday morning.
It would have taken a mammoth four more wins in four days in Indianapolis to earn the Big Ten’s automatic berth for the NCAA tournament — if that, too, wasn’t canceled due to coronavirus concerns on Thursday.
Next season’s challenge to bounce back is expected to be tougher with Gophers’ All-America sophomore center Daniel Oturu expected to declare for the NBA draft in the coming weeks. The U will lose three other seniors, including starting forward Alihan Demir.
Pitino brings in a national top-50 recruiting class to go with three returning starters in guards Marcus Carr, Payton Willis and Gabe Kalscheur. Two freshmen contributed this season in Isaiah Ihnen and Tre’ Williams.
Carr, a third-team all-Big Ten selection, will be the best returning player after setting the program’s single-season assist record this year.