ESPN ranks Gophers’ Richard Pitino 6th on 40 under 40 list

Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino thanks the crowd at Williams Arena after Minnesota beat Nebraska 107-75 on Senior Day. ((credit: University of Minnesota))

We’re in the college basketball offseason and with no live sports happening, it seems there’s a new subjective list out almost every day.

On Wednesday, ESPN writers Jeff Borzello, Myron Medcalf and John Gassaway released a list of the top 40 coaches under 40 years old in college basketball, with all 32 Division I conferences being considered. You might be surprised where they put Gopher basketball coach Richard Pitino.

At 37 years old, Pitino landed on the list at No. 6 overall. He’s behind UNC-Greensboro’s Wes Miller, Xavier’s Travis Steele, LSU’s Will Wade, Oklahoma State’s Mike Boynton and Furman’s Bob Richey. The list also includes assistant coaches, and Pitino is the only Big Ten coach in the top 10.

Pitino got his first college coaching job at the age of 22, and won 18 games in his first season as a Division I head coach at Florida International. He’s been at Minnesota for seven seasons, and led the Gophers to two NCAA Tournaments.

It’s been a roller-coaster seven years in Dinkytown for Pitino. He led the Gophers to an NIT title in his first season, then was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2017 after leading Minnesota to a school record 23 regular season wins and a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It was the only season in his seven years he’s had an above .500 record in the Big Ten.

Pitino got Mo Walker to lose 70 pounds and become a productive frontcourt player for the Gophers. He helped develop Jordan Murphy into one of the best power forwards both in the country and at Minnesota. The Gophers, with the help of Murphy and Amir Coffey, got their first NCAA Tournament win under Pitino over Louisville two seasons ago. Coffey is now in the NBA with the L.A. Clippers, and Daniel Oturu could become Minnesota’s first player to be picked in the first round of the NBA Draft since Kris Humphries in 2004.

Pitino has also had plenty of lows. He had to remove Daquein McNeil from the team in 2014 after an alleged assault investigation involving his girlfriend at the time. McNeil is now more than a year removed from being acquitted of murder charges in Baltimore in connection with a deadly house fire in June of 2017. Carlos Morris got kicked off the team for a violation of team rules, and Reggie Lynch left the program amid allegations of a sexual assault.

Pitino also had to endure an 8-23 season, including a 2-16 Big Ten record in 2015-16 after having to suspend three players for a violation of team rules.

The program started to trend back upwards two seasons ago, when Minnesota natives Oturu, Gabe Kalscheur and Jarvis Omersa joined the program. The Gophers got to their second NCAA Tournament under Pitino despite a 9-11 mark, beat Louisville and had their season end in a loss to Michigan State in the second round.

Minnesota finished 15-16 this past season, including an 8-12 mark in Big Ten play that included eight losses by eight points or fewer. The Gophers beat Northwestern in the opening day of the Big Ten Tournament and were scheduled to face Iowa before the NCAA canceled all remaining sports due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the offseason, the Gophers lost Oturu to the NBA Draft process, Michael Hurt and Alihan Demir to graduation and Payton Willis and B.J. Greenlee transferred. Pitino has added four-star talent Jamal Mashburn Jr., forward Martice Mitchell, transfer center Liam Robbins and graduate transfer forward Brandon Johnson.

Pitino still has two spots to fill for the 2020-21 season, but everything is in limbo due to the Coronavirus pandemic.