Though the Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball team is off to a surprising start with a 15-6 record, one man remains forgotten in this unforeseen success story: Tubby Smith.
Fired at the end of last season, Smith was let go as head coach of the Gophers even though the team reached the treasured NCAA tournament. Not only that, the Gophers advanced to the second round after upsetting UCLA in last year’s tournament. The firing was a strange move by the Gophers and drew much criticism from around the country. After all, Smith was 124-81 (.610) in six seasons at Minnesota, winning 20 games five times and advancing to the NCAA tournament three times.
A majority of the players on this year’s Gophers squad are recruits of Smith. However, new Head Coach Richard Pitino, 31, is a main reason for this year’s overachieving team. Pitino is the son of legendary coach Rick Pitino, whose Louisville Cardinals won the NCAA tournament in 2013. The younger Pitino seems comfortable on the Gophers sideline and is quickly becoming a fan favorite. He is young, energetic and has a deep-rooted understanding of the game.
However, without the success from players such as Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins, Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker, all players who were recruited by Smith, it is difficult to say where the Gophers would rank in the Big 10 standings. After Sunday’s (Jan. 26) loss at Nebraska, the Gophers are 4-4 in league play. The surprising record has them positioned in the top tier of the Big 10. The Gophers have similar records to several powerhouse Big 10 teams, including Wisconsin and Ohio State, two schools the Gophers have already defeated this season. That being the case, it is difficult to imagine a team led by Smith feeling uncertain about victory heading into every game (see the Nebraska game for a perfect example). Smith was a poised leader who understood how to properly prepare a team. Pitino appears to have much to learn in that category.
One knock against Smith, who is now the head coach at Texas Tech, was that he went just 46-62 in Big Ten play and never finished higher than sixth in the conference. If Pitino can continue to have success in the strongest basketball conference in the country, Gophers fans will likely have his back for many seasons to come. However, when the last of Smith’s recruits leave in a few seasons, Pitino’s combined skills at recruiting and coaching will be fully unveiled. For now, the Gophers are making Pitino look very good standing in another man’s shoes.
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