'I don't think it's reality': Pitino not worried about losing job amid 13-15 Gophers' season

Head coach Richard Pitino of the Minnesota Golden Gophers looks on in the first half against the Wisconsin Badgers at the Kohl Center on March 01, 2020 in Madison, Wisconsin. ((Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images))

Richard Pitino acknowledged Tuesday on his weekly radio show that with each loss added to the pile, the public outcry for his job security gets a little louder.

The Gophers dropped to 13-15 on the season, including 7-11 in the Big Ten, after Sunday’s 71-69 loss at Wisconsin. The especially bitter pill for Gopher fans to swallow is the fact that now for 22 straight seasons, Wisconsin will finish the Big Ten season with a better record than Minnesota.

The Gophers have lost five of their past six games and seven of nine, pretty much eliminating themselves from the NCAA Tournament conversation. Thanks to a late-season run last year, Minnesota got an at-large bid despite finishing 9-11 in conference play. Only once in Pitino’s seven seasons have the Gophers finished above .500 in the Big Ten. They were 11-7 in 2016-17, good for fourth in the league and Pitino being named the Big Ten Coach of the Year.

Even if the Gophers win at Indiana Wednesday night and against Nebraska on Sunday to close out the regular season 15-15 and 9-11, they’ll need at least a run to the weekend at the Big Ten Tournament to be relevant on Selection Sunday. Pitino said Tuesday on KFAN Radio that he doesn’t feel his job is in jeopardy, regardless of how this season ends.

“I don't think it's reality,” Pitino said. “I don't feel like that. I think the narrative has been created in the last couple weeks because we lost a couple home games.”

If one thing is certain this season, the Gophers won’t go down without a fight. They led No. 9-ranked Maryland by 16 points in the second half at Williams Arena before losing on a last second 3-pointer. They overcame a 12-point second half deficit at Wisconsin before losing 71-69 on Sunday. They led Iowa 55-47 with 5:25 to play before the Hawkeyes ended the game on an 11-0 run to escape Minneapolis with a win.

Those three losses came by a combined six points, and four others in Big Ten play have come by eight points or fewer.

The Gophers are doing their best to stay positive despite faltering in late-game situations.

“Losses take a toll on everybody and we’ve just done a good job as a team of keeping each other’s spirits high even though we haven’t been winning the last few games and taking some tough losses,” guard Payton Willis said. “Everybody does a good job keeping each other’s morale high.”

Wednesday night, they face an Indiana squad at Assembly Hall that came to Williams Arena on Feb. 19 and beat the Gophers 68-56. Willis said energy was the issue that night.

“They came in here and dominated us. We’ll be trying to get that win back,” Willis said.

Nobody has had a more up and down season than sophomore Gabe Kalscheur. He missed the front end of a 1-and-1 that could’ve given the Gophers a six-point lead over Maryland with 14 seconds left, only to have the Terrapins complete a comeback win. Then, Kalscheur scored just five points on only five shots at Wisconsin. He’s scored in double figures in 15 of the 28 games this season, including a career-high 34 points against Oklahoma State. He’s also had eight points or fewer in 10 games. He was held scoreless in the Big Ten opener at Iowa after shooting 0-of-10 from the field.

He says the team hasn’t lost belief, even if fans have started to with their March Madness hopes fading fast.

“I feel like we’re still a team that’s eager to win. That’s not ever going to stop us, we want to win. We’re going to do whatever it takes to win, so that comeback is still in us,” Kalscheur said.

Despite a sixth losing record in Big Ten play in seven seasons, a 2-9 mark in true road games this year and a 47-81 mark overall in conference play since he started in 2013, Pitino says he’s not worried about his future. That hasn’t stopped message board chatter and people on social media calling for his dismissal.

“I’ve got a pretty good perspective,” Pitino said on KFAN Radio. “This latest one has not flustered me as much as four years ago. I love Minnesota. I want to be here a long time.”

In that dismal 2015-16 season, the Gophers finished 8-23 and won two Big Ten games in a season marred by injuries and suspensions. The following year, Pitino led the Gophers to 24 wins and earned his first NCAA Tournament bid.

Last season, they won their first game in the Big Dance under Pitino. A step back was expected this year, after losing Amir Coffey to the NBA, Jordan Murphy to graduation and Eric Curry to another knee injury. Some new faces haven’t developed as hoped, they’ve struggled to make shots from the perimeter and been inconsistent at the free-throw line.

Two years ago, the Gophers finished 15-17. Last year, they were one of 32 teams left in the NCAA Tournament. They’ve responded before, and it can be done again. It may just have to wait a year, if Athletic Director Mark Coyle has the patience to bring Pitino back next year.

“It’s not really tough times in the grand scheme of things in life. I don’t think this is tough times, you know you’re losing some close games,” Pitino said. "The biggest thing was keeping those guys believing and we lost a bunch of close games that year. And then we break through and we are a five seed in the NCAA Tournament and finished fourth (in the Big Ten) so it's you keep you keep coaching the team. I told those guys, I'm like it's the most fun time of your life man. Just go out there and try to get a big win, don't put too much pressure on yourself.”