University of Minnesota

Hoops Notebook: Coach Pitino talks about his team and why he thinks they will be much improved

For Gopher basketball fans the Big Ten Media Day was encouraging. Coaches of other teams spoke of definite improvement and Richard Pitino spoke of this being his best team at Minnesota.

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“Exciting time of year because I feel like we've got the most complete team that I've had since we've been there, the most talented team, and the most depth,” said Pitino. 

“So we obviously know the Big Ten is one of the best conferences in all of college basketball, but I think this team will be ready for it, and I know they're excited to get going.”

With four starters returning and five newcomers expected to play big roles (three of the newcomers are expected to be starters) there is a major talent upgrade from last year’s 8-23 team.  But Minnesota won just 8 games last season and it’s hard to clear that from memory.  Coach Pitino has a plan on how to build off of last season.

“I had two meetings before our first official practice: one with the returning players and one with the newcomers,” said Pitino.  “I talked to the returning players and said, you know and I know that it’s a totally different team.  And it’s a team that we believe can be very good. 

“But we have to sit here and figure out how we grew as a team.  How did I grow as a coach? How did we grow as a staff?  And if you players are the same as you were last year making the same mistakes and not learning than last year wasn’t valuable to us. 

“Then I told our newcomers, all six of you need to make an impact.  Three of you are transfers, one of you is a fifth year transfer (Akeem Springs) who played for a good team. 

“Now, obviously Davonte Fitzgerald got hurt and is out for the year.  Then our freshman class of Amir Coffey, Michael Hurt, and Eric Curry, I told them they are the only ones that have an excuse, and it’s because you are young. But they are all excited to play.”

The transfers are a huge piece to the winter as both are expected to start from day one barring any injury.

“This is a totally different team because the young guys will play and the transfers will play,” said Pitino.  “You can legitimately say that Reggie Lynch will play major minutes, that Akeem Springs will play major minutes, and the freshman as well. 

“We need to have our experienced guys have a voice and let their new teammates know that there are things you can’t do in in the Big Ten. So far the returning players have had that voice so far.

“Bringing in Akeem Springs, who beat us last year, beat Wisconsin, and played really well at Notre Dame, he’s giving our team a lot of confidence on you need to act in order to be that team that gets those type of wins.  Our guys need to understand that this is a new season, a new team, and they need to be as confident as they can be.”

Of course Reggie Lynch was one of the nation’s best shot blockers during the 2014-15 season and Pitino is eager to get him on the court when he gets fully healthy after another recent surgery.

“Reggie is probably out another two weeks or so.  He was practicing before the injury.  Reggie is a difference maker, we can throw it into him, he’s ready. 

“Gaston Diedhiou and Bakary Konate were not ready as sophomores to play those types of minutes last year and it was challenging for them.  Where as Reggie played in a good conference at Illinois State for good teams.  Reggie is kind of that anchor that blocks shots and scores on the block so I think Reggie completes the team.”

When you mix in the two transfers, the freshmen, and the returning group of talent it brings a lot of excitement to the season.

“I think Nate Mason is one of the most under appreciated guards in the Big Ten,” Pitino said.  “Nobody talks him which is okay because I like that as a coach.  But he had an eight game stretch where he was one of the best players on the court. 

“Jordan Murphy is another guy that nobody is talking about.  He was an All Big Ten Freshman player and he almost had no idea what he was doing because he is a freshman.  I think Jordan's now starting to understand where to get his points.

“He's become very difficult to guard on the low block. Obviously he's rebounded at a very, very high rate. I think he was second in the conference in double-doubles. So somebody like that is somebody you can really, really build around.

“Jordan wants to win, loves the game, lives in the gym. So I think he's going to be a load. I think he'll be one of the better forwards in our conference, and he's obviously just a sophomore. So that's exciting for me. Those two guys are back and they are a great core. “

When you mix them with a couple of young wings who are also highly talented the Gophers have a high level of talent.

“Dupree McBrayer is someone that was playing really well at the end of the year and he probably had the best season of anyone,” said Pitino. Amir Coffey is one of the best freshman in the conference so there is a lot of talent out there. We have to do our jobs and bring it together but that depth is there.

“Amir is going to be an impact guy right away.  He’s going to be one of the most talented freshman I think in our conference if not the country.  I’d like to see Amir score more, he’s a phenomenal passer.

“I will be in the huddle, draw up a play, and then wonder to myself ‘what position are you’ because Amir is so tall and so versatile. He’s going to be a major part of it. Amir has been better than I anticipated.”

The Loss of Fitzgerald

Davonte Fitzgerald was lost to a knee injury last week taking away a 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8 forward who could play both spots.  What’s been learned since his injury is that the Gophers not only lost a nice player but a high character, hard working young man.

Pitino told a story about Fitzgerald’s injury yesterday that was very informative, inspiring, and encouraging despite yet another awful setback to Davonte’s career.

“Injuries are always tough, but that one was especially tough because he had a really good freshman year at Texas A&M, and he tore his ACL,” said Pitino.  “I believe, toward the end of the year.

“He really fought hard to come back. Wasn't quite himself that sophomore year at Texas A&M, and transfers to us, sits out, lives in the gym. I mean, probably the biggest gym rat on the team.

“Then in practice he goes down, and as a coach, you try to calm your players down when there is an injury, and he just looked up at me and said, I've had two of these. I know it's another one. That was a bit demoralizing.

“I called him that night, and he didn't answer. He texted me back and the first thing he said was, and this was weird for young people, he said, Coach, I want to thank you so much for letting me be a part of this, and I'll come back stronger than ever. So he's not felt sorry for himself. I've almost felt more sorry for myself than he has. He's almost encouraged me at times.

“So I think it shows you what type of person he is. And from a basketball standpoint, he was going to be a big part. There were lineups I was excited about playing, a point guard who may have been 6'2", 6'3"; a two guard, 6'7"; Davonte, 6'8"; forward, 6'8"; and a center, 6'10". So that's a big lineup. So he provided a lot of versatility, a lot of flexibility for me. He can play the three and the four.

“So it's a little bit of a hit for us from a basketball standpoint, but hopefully if we stay healthy, I think we'll be okay with that. But more than anything, I feel sorry for the kid, because he does everything right, he just works his butt off, and hopefully he'll be back next year and be stronger than ever.”

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