Then and Now Preview: Minnesota
WNUR’s Michael Stern (@MichaelJStern23) previews each of Northwestern’s opponents by looking at how each team did for the first few years under their current head coach. Today: Minnesota and Rich Pitino (and Tubby Smith).
Saturday, the Wildcats look to even their Big Ten record at 5-5 (5-5!!!) when the visit The Barn to face Minnesota. The Gophers and Wildcats both employ first-year head coaches, so we’ll go back to the last time the Gophers rebuilt before taking a look at how their latest rebuilding project is going.
Then: When Minnesota hired Tubby Smith, who had just been fired from Kentucky, before the 2007-2008 season, the Gophers were coming off of an embarrassing 9-22 season. Smith quickly took the first steps towards turning things around, but never finished the job. In all six of Smith’s seasons in the Twin Cities, the Gophers finished above .500, but they also had 11 or more losses in each season. Smith led a team of holdovers from the Dan Monson regime to a respectable 20-14 record in his first year in charge, and followed that up with an NCAA tournament berth the next year. Minnesota was ranked at the start of the 2009-2010 season, and Smith recruits Blake Hoffarber, Devoe Joseph, and Ralph Sampson combined with Monson holdovers Lawrence Westbrook and Damian Johnson to give the Gophers a second straight tournament berth. Smith’s third and final tournament berth came in his final year at Minnesota, as senior Rodney Williams and graduate student Trevor Mbakwe teamed with the Hollins brothers to lead the Gophers past UCLA in the round of 64 before losing to Florida in the round of 32 to end the Smith era.
Now: Tubby didn’t leave the cupboard bare for new Gopher coach Rich Pitino. Yes, Rich is the son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, and genetics helps to explain Pitino’s firey personality and immediate success. The Gophers are inconsistent, but they have beaten Wisconsin and Ohio State by double digits, lost by three to Michigan, and taken Michigan State to overtime. This is not a team the Wildcats can overlook, but Northwestern might be catching the Gophers at a good time. Junior guard Andre Hollins is the Gophers’ leading scorer at 15.5 points per game, but he missed Minnesota’s loss last weekend to Nebraska and is expected to be out again Saturday with a left ankle injury.Hollins’ injury means more minutes for Florida International transfer Malik Smith, who already averages 10.8 points per game, and more shots for Andre’s older brother Austin Hollins, who averages 11.7 points per game. Although they boast four double-digit scorers (senior point guard Deandre Mathieu averages 11.6 points and 4.3 assists a night), the Gophers are not very deep and play only seven players more than 15 minutes a game. In addition to their four scoring guards, bruising big man Eliott Eliason (8.2 rebounds per game) and large Latvian Oto Osenieks (57 percent on two point field goals) are tough to contain down low. Sophomore transfer Joey King and injury-prone junior Maurice Walker add frontcourt depth. Walker, who suffered a knee injury at the end of his freshman season, played his high school basketball at prestigious Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, where his senior year team included Iowa State forward Melvin Ejim, former Memphis point guard Will Barton, Kansas point guard Naadir Tharpe, and Syracuse star CJ Fair.