Pitino, Gophers hope for NIT title
By Marcus R. Fuller
He could tell they were excited.
The Gophers (24-13) hope a championship game win tonight over Southern Methodist (27-9) would lead to an NCAA tournament berth next season, but the opportunity for Pitino to showcase his basketball team on national television is just as important.
Tonight’s game at Madison Square Garden will be televised on ESPN2 and is drawing extra attention because of the coaching matchup between a former New York Knicks coach, SMU’s Larry Brown, and the son of another, Rick Pitino.
Richard Pitino, 31, wants to use the opportunity to sell his brand on a bigger stage, to an audience that might not yet know him as an up-and-coming head coach.
“You know, any time you play on national TV, you play on ESPN, you’ve got, you know, a legend like Bob Knight doing the (color analysis), you’re in the Garden, it’s good for your program,” Pitino said.
The exposure, the first-year Gophers coach said, is crucial for recruiting. Before this season, Pitino was selling an abstraction because few players had seen his 2012-13 Florida International team play in his only other season as a head coach.
“Now they see it,” he said. “So either they are going to like it and they are going to want to be part of it, or they are not. But exposure is the best thing for a program when you’re trying to build it.”
SMU, which beat Clemson 65-59 in Tuesday’s semifinals, arguably was the biggest NCAA tournament snub, but the Mustangs were getting exposure because of Brown, a hall of fame coach who won a national title at Kansas in 1988 and an NBA championship with Detroit in 2004. He already has lured five-star recruit Emmanuel Muiday to Dallas.
“He gives us a chance to be great, and this whole experience gives us a chance,” Brown said. “I know Richard is building something at Minnesota in a phenomenal league, and I’m sure the success he’s having is going to help him recruit terrific players.”
Pitino should return four starters, and possibly six players, from a team that has 24 victories this season, matching the 1976-77 team for the second most in school history behind the 31-win team that made a run to the Final Four in 1997.
Those two seasons, however, have been erased from the books because of NCAA violations.
“I didn’t realize it,” Pitino said. “You know, we have got great tradition here, so to be able to do that is something that we’re really, really excited about. We have got a lot of pieces back next year, so hopefully we’ll continue to move forward.”
Playing at the Garden will be a valuable experience for returning players who will have a chance to play in New York next season as part of the preseason NIT in November — a nonconference stretch that will be crucial to building an NCAA tournament résumé.
Four of the past seven teams to win the NIT made the NCAA tournament the following season, which includes Sweet 16 trips for Baylor this year and West Virginia in 2008. The NIT runner-up has fared well, too. Those teams have made the NCAA tournament in six of the past seven seasons — including the past five.
Three of those teams won an NCAA tournament game, too, including the Gophers, who beat UCLA in the tournament last season after losing to Stanford in the 2012 NIT final. Baylor and North Carolina went from NIT runners-up to Elite Eight teams in 2009 and 2010, respectively.
But make no mistake, Minnesota is looking to win the NIT final this time, especially after getting embarrassed by Stanford in a 24-point loss in 2012.
The Gophers have beaten an NCAA Final Four team in Wisconsin, but so has SMU, sweeping Connecticut in the American Athletic Conference.
“They’re a really good team,” junior guard Andre Hollins said. “A lot of people thought they should have made (the NCAA tournament). They think they should have made it. We’re going to have to come out and play a very good game.”
Junior center Mo Walker said it would “mean a lot” to put an NIT championship banner up at Williams Arena because the Gophers want to build a winning tradition. But it’s no secret that Minnesota’s players — and even its recruits — already are inspired by this run and are expecting bigger things next season.
“It’s a big confidence booster,” said Seattle Bothell High School forward Josh Martin, who signed to play for Pitino next season. “It shows me that they were just on the cusp of making the NCAA tournament this year, and they’re in the NIT championship because they’re doing something right.
“I’m excited to be part of it next year — in the Big Dance.”
The St. Paul Pioneer Press is in a media partnership with Forum News Service.