Pitino making his own way with 'U'
MINNEAPOLIS — The upper class of college basketball will again be well-represented at the Maui Invitational, where many of the game's greats have gathered for decades to show off their early-season stuff.
When Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim's team takes the court Monday afternoon, he'll be on the sideline scheming how to beat a familiar foe by the name of Pitino.
Except this guy is actually a newcomer to the scene, Richard Pitino, who will bring Minnesota to the tropical showcase and not Providence, Kentucky or Louisville like his famous father, Rick Pitino.
The younger Pitino has absorbed as much of the Hall of Fame coach's wisdom, style and wit as possible over the years growing up with and later working for him. But Richard Pitino has his own major-conference program to run, and the son looks, sounds and coaches a lot like his father.
"I definitely don't try to get away from it. I embrace it," Richard Pitino said. "People always say, 'How can you live up to your dad?' I'm not trying to do that. The guy has won two national titles. He's been to seven Final Fours. Won over 600 games. ... So if I'm trying to live up to him, I'm going to be a very unhappy person. I don't do that. I'm proud of him. He's taught me a lot."
After serving as an assistant at Louisville and Florida — under another protege of his hard-driving father's, Billy Donovan — Richard Pitino became a head coach last season for the first time. He led Florida International to its first winning seasons in 13 years. Then Minnesota needed a replacement for Tubby Smith, and while his dad was in the process of leading Louisville to the national title, Richard Pitino was the pick for the Gophers.
"He obviously knows what he's doing. He's learned from the best," said junior guard Andre Hollins.
Plenty of challenges here
Minnesota is the only Division I program in the state, with some significant success in the 1950s, 1970s and 1990s. But the Gophers play in what could be the strongest league in the country, with a charming but dated arena that doesn't impress teenagers much and no separate practice facility. Recruiting here isn't easy. The state's top two high school seniors just committed to Stanford and Duke.
The son does not run from the father when he's trying to sell prospects on the full-court press and fast-breaking, shoot-often offense he has brought to Minnesota.
"Tell them to watch the national championship game because the team that won the national title plays that style," Richard Pitino said. "I believe in the style of play, and it's been proven to win and we're going to hang our hat on it."
He is straightforward. Italian blood and an East Coast upbringing don't disappear just because Pitino is now in the soft-spoken Upper Midwest.
"That's kind of what I've grown up around, working for my dad, working for Billy Donovan," Richard Pitino said. "There wasn't really a lot of mind games. Very, very honest. Very upfront with them. That's the only way, in my opinion, they're going to learn. So I'm not going to tell them what they want to hear. I'm going to tell them what I believe and what they need to work on. I think they like that better."
So far, so good. The Gophers will take a 5-0 record into their measuring-stick game against ninth-ranked Syracuse in Maui.
"He's been real honest with us. He doesn't sugarcoat anything. He tells us the way we need to hear it, and that helps us in the end," senior forward Austin Hollins said.
That blunt talk doesn't always mean negative. Smith was frequently critical, especially during losing streaks, and the players have clearly responded to the fresh wave of optimism and encouragement the new coach has brought.
"Our biggest strength is positivity. With that, that's going to bring us confidence," senior guard Maverick Ahanmisi said. "I think it's the mentality that the coaching staff really brought in. They've been good to us. We love them to death. We work hard for them. They work hard for us. So it's good team chemistry."
Players are responding
Junior forward Oto Osenieks has looked like a completely different player. Buried on the bench last season, he shot less than 30 percent from the floor, including a woeful 2 for 26 from 3-point range. This past week, Osenieks scored 13 points against Coastal Carolina and 14 points against Wofford, setting his career high each night.
"I feel more free. ... Coach Smith, they're both really great coaches. But I can relate more to coach Pitino because, I guess, he's younger," Osenieks said.
There's an inherent advantage Pitino has in building that camaraderie. He's less than 10 years older than his upperclassmen. Music, movies, whatever. There's a lot more language in common between this staff and these players than before.
"He's a real cool guy. I wouldn't mind hanging out with him," Ahanmisi said, smiling.
This, then, is where the son strays away from the father.
"I'm one of the youngest head coaches out there. I think I can use that to my advantage. I don't think I need to run from it," Richard Pitino said. "I see what you're going through. I understand the world that you're growing up in. ... Everybody compares me to my dad. It's very simple. He's 61 years old. I'm 31 years old. I don't want to act 61. I want to act 21."