MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - When Richard Pitino took over at Minnesota, he told the administrators who hired him to anticipate some bumps along the road in building a consistent Big Ten contender.
The third season, Pitino warned, would be especially taxing for the program.
The young coach’s prediction has sure proved correct.
“I thought we would definitely take a step backward in order to take a major step forward. I did think that was going to have to happen,” Pitino said. “No, I did not think it would be this bad. I’d be lying if I said I did.”
The Gophers (6-13, 0-7) will take an eight-game losing skid into Saturday’s game against similarly sputtering Illinois. Minnesota has won just once since November. The litany of losing has included home-floor defeats by mid-major opponents South Dakota, South Dakota State and Milwaukee and a pair of 25-point losses to middle-of-the-pack conference foes Northwestern and Nebraska.
“In order to win, I’ve said it before, we’ve got to pitch a perfect game,” Pitino said.
Only three players on the active roster, seniors Joey King and Carlos Morris and junior Charles Buggs, are upperclassmen. Morris, who spent his first two seasons at a junior college, and Buggs, the only holdover remaining from previous coach Tubby Smith’s recruits, are unpolished.
The Gophers are last in the Big Ten in shooting 41.2 percent from the field. With only four players taller than 6-foot-6 - King, Buggs and raw sophomores Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou - grabbing those misses has been a problem, too. They’re 12th out of 14 in the league in rebounding margin.
“So there’s a couple recipes for disaster there from an offensive standpoint,” Pitino said.
With so much inexperience, though, the greatest struggle has been mental.
“They’re just looking for a lifeline so badly from somebody, instead of looking themselves in the mirror,” Pitino said.
Former Gophers forward Richard Coffey, whose son, Amir, is part of a strong class of incoming freshmen next season, took some time recently to encourage the team. Minnesota went a combined 6-30 in Big Ten play in Coffey’s first two seasons before reaching the regional semifinals and the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament his last two years in 1989 and 1990.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to turn to courage when you lose confidence,’” Pitino said. “Because we all do it. Where do you turn in the course of the game to get your confidence back? That’s something we’ve talked about a lot. I do think experience gives you that.”
The collection of upperclassmen when Pitino took the job prompted him and his staff to seek to maximize that first team’s potential. The Gophers were NIT champions that first year.
Some players are no longer with the program. Incoming freshman Jarvis Johnson was deemed unfit to play last summer because of a heart condition. Pitino also decided to add transfers Reggie Lynch (Illinois State) and Davonte Fitzgerald (Texas A&M), accepting their ineligibility by NCAA rule this season for two future years from each of them.
Pitino, for his part, acknowledged mistakes in recruiting and managing the roster that has left the Gophers so thin and so young for this trying season.
“We get really down ourselves during the game. That’s something that we’re really talking to them about, that regardless of what we do from an offensive standpoint, it should not affect your effort, your energy, your spirit,” Pitino said.
The players, Pitino said, have not lacked effort.
“We’re going through a tough time right now. In the end, I see a lot of light at the end of the tunnel,” King said. “I think things are looking good in the future, but what’s so important is we’ve just got to keep working, have patience with this, and just make what we can of this year and just enjoy the ride and continue to play hard.”
The last two performances have provided hope, competitive losses to conference co-leader Indiana (70-63) and at Michigan (74-69).
“That team you saw has a lot of fight and a lot of heart,” freshman forward Jordan Murphy said after the game at Michigan on Wednesday, “and that’s what we’ve got to keep growing on.”
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