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The Gopher Hoops Hot Seat and Reasonable Expectations for Success

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NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Illinois vs Minnesota Thomas Joseph-USA TODAY Sports

There are a number of reasons why Richard Pitino is widely considered to be on the hot seat this season. The young Gopher coach has had 3 seasons under his control that have seen a steady decline in wins with an increase in off the court issues. Athlon, in their list of college coaches on the hot seat, they succinctly wrap up why Pitino is on the list.

Pitino guided Minnesota to the 2014 NIT title in his first season at the school, but the Golden Gophers have slumped to 8–28 in the Big Ten over the past two seasons. Last year’s team finished with a 2–16 record in the league — Minnesota’s worst since 1986-87 — and ended the year ranked 223rd by KenPom.com. In addition, there have been several off-the-court issues that have plagued the program in recent years. Pitino will have to show significant progress in Year 4 to retain his job.

ESPN also put 10 coaches on the hot seat, including Pitino.

The 34-year-old came out of the gates strong with an NIT title in his first season, and Year 2 with the Gophers was solid. However, last season -- both on and off the court -- was one to forget. Minnesota was 8-23 overall, 2-16 in league play, and there will certainly be pressure to avoid another season like that. Pitino losing the athletic director who hired him won't help job security, but winning games will.

None of this is new information to Gopher fans who sat through a season last year that was challenging (at best) to watch. Losses piled up and the team appeared to be unprepared with poor execution from start to finish. As the season wound down the message boards and our comment section often went straight to discussion on the status of Pitino.

Due to the unreasonably large buy-out (~$7M) coupled with the fact that at the end of last season there was no Athletic Director at the helm of Gopher Athletics, there was little doubt that Pitino would have at least a 4th season to prove he belonged leading a Big Ten basketball program. With a highly regarded recruiting class coming in plus the addition of a couple transfers becoming eligible, there’s at least a glimmer of hope that things will turn around quickly.

To be quite honest, I have been a harsh critic of Pitino and the direction of the Gopher program. Were there an AD in place last spring, I may have been vocally calling for a change. The right person was not in place to make a change, I fully understand why he’s here for this season and I’m on board with hoping to see improvement to the point where I can admit I was wrong. I’ll be thrilled to see him succeed and turn the Gopher program around.

So the question really comes down to, what kind of a season is Richard Pitino going to need in order to keep his job. And more often than not what I hear from Gopher fans is that this season needs to result in an NCAA Tournament bid or it’ll be time for a change in program leadership.

But even with my skepticism of Pitino as a long-term answer here, I believe the notion that it is going to take a run to the NCAA Tournament is not only an unreasonable expectation of Pitino but also highly unlikely for this team.

Last season the team was 2-16 in the Big Ten, 8-23 overall. There were losses to South Dakota, South Dakota State and Milwaukee as well as 25-point losses to Big Ten juggernauts like Northwestern and Nebraska. That was about as close to being rock bottom as we’ve been. Arguably the worst Gopher season in the program’s history.

Understanding that was last year, and this year has an influx of talent. But to get into the NCAA’s this team will likely need 21 or 22 overall wins and at least 7 (probably 8) Big Ten wins.

Is a 6-win turnaround in the Big Ten and 13 or 14 more overall wins possible? It is...but it is unlikely and rarely done. I think the team to look to as an example of “it can be done” is the 2004-05 Gopher squad. They actually had a 7-win turnaround from the previous season and made their way to the NCAA Tournament, saving Dan Monson’s job for another year. How did they do it? They did it with the unexpected production from JUCO transfer Vincent Grier along with the dramatically improved defense that was architected by Jim Molinari.

That 2004-05 team jumped from a Ken Pom rank of 133 (160th in def efficiency) at the end of 2003-04 to finishing the year ranked 41st overall (9th in def efficiency). They went from 3-13 in the B1G to 10-6. That impressive turnaround earned them an 8-seed in the NCAA Tournament that resulted in a loss to Iowa State. Unexpected emergence of a go-to player and dramatically improved defense is what it took for that team’s impressive turnaround.

Talent on this year’s squad should be improved. Adding a legit center, a top 50 recruit and a graduate transfer who should add backcourt depth and scoring are all going to help. I think the talent will be better, but to be honest talent wasn’t the problem with last year’s team.

I’ll say that again...talent was not the problem with last year’s team.

There was not elite talent on last year’s team. There wasn’t enough talent to be an NCAA Tournament team. But talent was not the reason they lost to both South Dakota schools and were blown out by other B1G teams languishing at the bottom of the standings.

If the Gophers turn things around this year, it will not be because of added talent. That certainly helps, but if they are to jump 6 or 7 Big Ten wins it is going to come from significant improvement in execution on both ends of the floor. Last year’s offensive and defensive efficiency stats and ranks were ugly.

  • Off Efficiency - 100.3 (309th)
  • Def Efficiency - 103.1 (162nd)

Both of those numbers are bad and both will improve only by better execution on offense and better team defense. Where I’m leery to be excited about a big turnaround this year is that improving these numbers is much more dependent on coaching and teaching that it has to do with individual talent. Having a couple better shooters will certainly help, having a center who blocks shots in the paint will also help quite a bit. But the issues of execution on offense that gives you you better chances to score and the ability to make things difficult on opposing offenses with your defense are ones I fear will not go away this season.

Can the Gophers make a massive turnaround and remarkably earn an NCAA Tournament bid? It is possible, though I feel highly unlikely. But I’ll argue that it isn’t a necessity for Pitino to keep his job.

What Will it Take to Retain His Job

I want to see improvement, I want to see significant improvement on both ends of the floor. I don’t know that there are really any specific numbers or wins that need to be hit, I certainly don’t think that an NCAA Tournament big is necessary (mostly because I think that mark is unreasonable). More wins, more competitiveness and better execution...enough to give me hope that next season might be one where an NCAA Tournament and maybe even a win or two becomes a reasonable expectation.

Are those vague? No doubt about it. If I had to pick a number I think that 6 wins in the Big Ten is reasonable and 17 or 18 overall is also not out of the question. Assuming they are competitive with their Big Ten opponents, that 17/18 win range would show improvement and give a glimmer of hope that things are heading back in the right direction. Keep in mind that the core of this year’s team returns in 2017-18, which could actually be a pretty talented and experienced team.

Would 17/18 wins be enough to save Coach Pitino’s job? That sort of depends on the mood of the new AD and what kind of direction he wants for the program. But I think a case can be made to give him a 5th year if he gets to that level of success, in spite of not making the NCAA Tournament.