We are a couple weeks into the Richard Pitino Era of Golden Gopher Basketball. We are still getting to know our new coach a little bit and I think there is a bit of excitement with the hiring of what is being billed to us as an up and coming coach. Billy Donovan was quoted as telling Norwood Teague, "if you don't hire him now, you're going to hear from him three, four, five years from now and say I had a chance to hire this guy." That resonated with Teague and I think it is part of the reason Gopher fans are excited by the hire.
We are excited about a younger coach, with much to prove, igniting some life into the program. I think many are excited about his anticipated style of play and I think that many are hopeful Pitino and staff will bring this program to a new level of recruiting success. But to be fair and honest, we don't know a whole lot about Pitino and there are many questions that cannot be answered yet. I am generally an optimistic person and I'm looking forward to the new staff. I do recall saying when the coaching search began that this sort of hire is right in Teague's wheelhouse. So with that I want to share my thoughts on the newly hired staff and recruiting and what I think we can expect.
Head Coach - Richard Pitino
There could be a number of concerns with the Pitino hire but the more I think about this hire there are more things that I like about it. Sure he is young and he has just one year of head coaching experience. Those can be valid concerns and questions that need to be answered. But his youth, his enthusiasm and his desire to win on his own can also be positive attributes.
Specifically I like what he did in just one year at Florida International. His first day on the job he lost several players and was forced to play his one and only season with a limited roster. What do I like about this? He did more with less, he started two walk-ons and managed to put together the best conference record in FIU's history, leading them to the Sun Belt Tournament Title game as a four seed. I believe that it is easier to win at the mid-major (or sub-mid-major) level, all you need is a player or two and that can make a world of difference. But he didn't have time to find that player or two, he was playing short-handed and he made due with what he had.
I like his commitment to recruiting. He has experience recruiting at the highest level so he knows what kids are looking for, he knows what kind of relationships to build that will be most advantageous and his enthusiasm will rub off on kids in the right way (or so I believe). For the past several months we would hear of Tubby and his staff attending practices and games of the local Big 3, establishing a relationship. Then we'd hear of Calipari coming to town and really impressing the local recruits with his plan and presentation. I think this pomp and circumstance was previously missing, it will not be anymore.
I also like the style of play he'll be bringing. This style of play is appealing to top level recruits and I think it will also sell tickets. Offensively it will be a pro-style set with plenty of pick-n-rolls and plays to get looks for scorers. Defensively, expect Louisville. I like!
Assistant Coach - Ben Johnson (hire has not yet been confirmed)
The hire with local ties. This is a good move and of the many choices with local ties I think this may have been the best one. Johnson has plenty of experience at various D1 institutions, he has coached in the Big Ten, he is experienced recruiting this market and Johnson is also a Gopher alum. An added bonus is that he has direct ties to De La Salle, which has at least a couple of high-major talented individuals on their current roster. You don't hire a guy with the focused intent of just being here to recruit a guy or two, Johnson is going to be much more valuable than just that, but it certainly doesn't hurt in this case. I expect that he'll work closely with the perimeter players and then be heavily involved in the local recruiting scene.
Here is what Tim Miles had to say about Johnson when he was hired last year in Lincoln.
"I think Ben is a rising star in this business," Miles said. "He's well-organized, hard-working and great with the players. He can do it all, whether it is game planning or working guys out. I thought it was important to have a guy who's been in the Big Ten and understands the environments and understands how to win. I think that's a huge relationship builder with the players, and Ben will provide that and then some for our program."
If the Richard Pitino era is wildly successful and Louisville comes calling in several years, maybe Johnson stays to continue the Pitino success and we have our long-term answer. Just maybe, but that is getting way too far ahead of ourselves. Ultimately I think this is a wise hire.
Assistant Coach - Kimani Young
The controversial hire, or really the hire that allowed local
cheap shot artists media to crack jokes about this particular hire. But to be honest, this might be the staff member who excites me the most. Young's past was well chronicles by Amelia, but that part doesn't concern me in the slightest. I don't exactly know how well Young will develop players or if his role will be with scouting or game prep or what. But where I think he will excel is in recruiting. Before taking a job with Pitino at FIU, Young was plugged into the New York City AAU scene. So much of recruiting is about relationships, knowing who you have to go through to get into a kid's living room and having a level of trust with those key influencers. My assumption is that Young has a very good understanding of the recruiting game after being on the other side of it for several years in a target rich environment.
Young has endured much, including the loss of his wife before the age of 30. Her sudden passing left him with three young children and he sacrificed his job at St. John's before eventually getting another opportunity to coach at the D1 level.
"With my family situation I wanted to take a step back at the time," he said. "I was able to return to my position at New Heights and the last couple years we've been able to get our feet under us with the loss of their mom. The kids are a little older now, so now is a good time to start a new opportunity."
I think this young man has had many valuable (and painful) life experiences and I believe that he is a man who desires to influence the young men who will come through this program, helping them to make wise choices with their lives. Of course I've never met him and I'm basing this all on things that I've read, so maybe I'm way off base but I believe that this will be looked at as a really good hire and invaluable member of the staff.
Dir. Basketball Operations - Mike Balado
I don't really have an opinion on Balado. He seems to have good experience and should be a dramatic upgrade over the previous DoBO. Another young coach with a reputation as a recruiter.
This leaves one spot open yet on the staff. My gut tells me that this will be an experienced coach, maybe from a power school. Rumors spread Auburn's Associate Head Coach, Ryan Miller was the target but nothing has been confirmed. Miller is a South Dakota native and the younger brother of NBA veteran Mike Miller.
This is where things have gotten interesting in a real hurry and it has sort of been a whirlwind of meetings with local recruits, dealing with current commits and scrambling to get someone added to replace our four departed seniors.
Initially the Gophers lost their two committed player. Alex Foster and Pitino talked and decided to go their separate ways. Alvin Ellis was the first to ask for his release and doesn't appear to be in contact with the new staff anymore. I can understand that you committed to one staff and a particular style of play after spending months cultivating a relationship that you felt comfortable with. On the other hand, I think we are going to miss Ellis and I think he would be able to play in the new Pitino style. This one saddens me a little.
But the staff has moved on. There has quickly been a list of players who have been targeted by the new staff.
- Tarik Black - Memphis transfer who has graduated, will have one year to play and can play immediately. Black was a highly touted forward who has been very good at times and finished this year with 8.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. He is being pursued by up to 20 schools including Duke and Kansas. He would be an immediate boost to the lineup.
- Cameron Forte - JUCO forward who averaged 22.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game this past season. Forte was recruited by Pitino and Young this past year to go to FIU so there is a relationship there already. He visited Georgia this past weekend.
- Shane Rector - PG who was previously committed to Rutgers. He has been extended a Gopher offer and has a relationship with Young. Rector will visit Missouri this weekend and he has offers from Virginia Tech, Texas A&M and Butler.
- One name I'm throwing out (and this is 100% speculation) is Jon Severe. A NY area shooting guard who is yet uncommitted. I'm putting his name down solely because he is a NY AAU kid and Young may be able to at least get a phone call through to the kid. A true scorer who would add some punch to the Gopher offense.
Other names will certainly surface over the next couple of days, landing Black would be a great get and would allow for a couple more names to be added without losing a precious 2014 scholarship!
Speaking of the 2014 class, Pitino has been very busy contacting the local Big 3.
- Rashad Vaughn spent some time with Pitino recently watching practice and talking with the new coach. He seemed impressed and he likes the new style of play.
- Tyus Jones has talked with him several times and is saying all the right things about building a new relationship and letting the process play itself out. There is also a report that the two have met on campus.
- Reid Travis, Alex Illikainen, Henry Ellenson, Jarvis Johnson and Amir Coffey have all been in contact with Pitino as well.
There are a number of things I like in these early honeymoon days. Style of play and recruiting efforts stand out the most at this point. So far I'm pleased, but to be fair there has been very little opportunity to disappoint. I am excited to see how the current roster responds to this new style next year and more interested in seeing how the local recruits react to the new staff.
At least initially there is some excitement around the program. Renewed enthusiasm that will hopefully lead to ticket sales, recruiting success and most importantly...wins.