Thursday, February 18, 2016

Richard Pitino Screws Up Again

The Gophers basketball team is terrible. There's no debating that, as they remain winless in big ten play in mid-February and possess just six wins all season. Poor recruiting classes over the years coupled with very little on court improvement has left this roster full of borderline division one basketball players at best. (And Jordan Murphy, who looks great.)

As always seems to be the case, though, Gophers fans are excited for the future. The team has the 20th ranked recruiting class for 2016, including Amir Coffey, a very good in-state recruit that had plenty of other interest across the country. Despite the team's horrible performance this season, including Nate Mason's declining play, freshman Jordan Murphy looks like a potential star in the future. Stealing him away from VCU when Shaka Smart bolted for Texas was a great move by little Pitino and his staff.

Unfortunately, while Pitino seems to be finally hitting his groove on the recruiting trail, he continues to look lost as a head basketball coach. His in-game decisions have been questionable since day one, including pressing at the wrong times and with the wrong personnel*. There's no real set offense, which is a necessity when you don't have great scoring players on the roster. Dribble hand offs and pick and rolls won't get it done in a major division one conference. It worked in the NIT in his first season, thanks in part to upper classmen that had some semblance of an offense while Tubby was here. It also helped that the team was hardly playing elite talent in the JV tournament.

*In the team's last game, against Iowa, Pitino chose to waste the teams final timeout with 2:28 to go after the Gophers made a basket to cut Iowa's lead to 5. Pitino wanted to set up his press, but to use the last timeout your team has with that much time remaining was idiotic. The Gophers eventually managed to cut the lead to 74-71 with 2 seconds left, but had no timeouts to set up their press. A comeback was unlikely even with a timeout, but it was much more valuable in that situation than with 2:28 left. It was baffling for a basketball coach to make such a poor decision, although football coaches do it every week too. Clock management shouldn't be as hard as coaches make it.

Even worse than in his in-game coaching, though, is his handling of upper classmen who have fallen out of favor with the coaching staff. Late in the 2014 season, Pitino's first year, the team made it clear to junior Oto Osenieks that they didn't want him back for his senior season. To be fair, Osenieks was terrible and had no business being a division one basketball player. The team began to tell the press Oto wouldn't be back because of a knee injury, but they were going to continue to help him graduate and allow him to help with day-to-day things with the team in what would have been his senior season. Basically he'd be a graduate assistant, without actually having graduated yet. Of course, the truth was the team wanted to open the scholarship slot in case they were able to find a recruit, and this was the only way for Oto to save face in the press without looking like he was kicked off the team.

Even though Oto was a Tubby Smith recruit, Pitino should have done right by the kid and honored the scholarship. If you're going to be as ruthless as Pitino and his staff were with Oto when it comes to scholarships, you need to be sure you are landing elite recruits**. The team's 2014 class has been a huge disappointment, and while they are all better players than Oto, doing what they did to Oto to gain a scholarship should have received much more criticism than it did.

**It's worth noting the team applied for a waiver to allow Oto to stay on scholarship, having his senior year paid for, without counting against the team's limit. So while they screwed him out of a basketball roster spot he had been promised, they did at least try to keep him in school. Minor consolation for being treated like garbage, if you ask me.

Fast forward to the mess that is this season, and Pitino again has mishandled an upper classmen who's fallen out of favor with the coaching staff. It's worth noting that I agree wholeheartedly with Carlos Morris playing as little as possible the rest of the season. He's a senior, who frankly isn't very good, and the team has no chance at anything this season. The rest of the season should be used to give even more young players some court time to allow them to get better and see what the team might have for next season.

However, Pitino had to understand that a senior captain wasn't going to just be okay with giving up his minutes to an even worse freshman or sophomore. In Morris' eyes, the season is already lost, and it's the final few weeks of his basketball career. He will never play a meaningful game again after this season. The least his coach could do would be to let him play out the last few weeks after the all work he's put in for himself and his teammates since he arrived in Minnesota last year.

Morris reportedly got into a "heated exchange" with Pitino leading up to this week's game against Maryland, and Pitino subsequently kicked him off the team for conduct detrimental to the team. It's hard to know for sure who's at fault without knowing exactly what was said, but Richard Pitino needs to understand he needs to have a thicker skin for these types of situations. Instead of dealing with a senior being benched all year, the team chose to give Oto's scholarship to a young player. Instead of understanding that a senior captain getting his minutes reduced would naturally anger the player, Pitino expected Morris to just take the demotion, like Joey King has. The only problem is Joey King is likely just as angry--he's just one of the rare good kids who isn't going to cause a problem. More athletes would react the way Morris did than Joey King has. That's just the fact of the matter, and part of being a college basketball coach.

Unless Morris threatened Pitino or his family or something crazy like that, Pitino should have swallowed his pride, understood that Morris has been part of one of the most frustrating Gopher seasons in school history, and let him clear his chest. By all accounts, Morris is a quiet, soft-spoken young man. So for him to go off on Pitino is more a sign of anger and frustration than a character flaw that could hurt the team. Even if Morris called Pitino the worst coach of all time, or said he was a racist--there's no reason to kick a kid off the team with 6 games left in his career for yelling at you at practice, behind closed doors. While the team again insisted he would remain on scholarship and they'd do everything in their power to help him graduate, they have done the exact opposite by kicking him off the team. With three months left in the semester, there's a chance Morris will just say screw this, I'm sick of this place, and leave without ever graduating. While that outcome remains unlikely, the odds have increased greatly with the dismissal from the team.

Pitino should have simply let Morris vent, say what he had to say, and then simply benched him for the remaining games until senior night. Instead, Pitino has set a dangerous precedent for future Gopher teams. If he continues to improve his recruiting classes, and the team is by some miracle landing top recruits, there will be several kids who won't always agree with the coach, and a few who will let him know it. Is Pitino going to treat a top recruit the same way he treated Carlos Morris? Will an elite recruit be kicked off the team? I doubt it. What kind of message does that send to the players that saw Carlos Morris get kicked off the team? If you were a better player, you could talk like that to me? And if Pitino does kick off an elite recruit for talking back to him, the team will continue to suck. It's just getting embarrassing to root for a team that repeatedly screws up every major decision.

If Pitino was really doing what was "best for the kids" as he insists on the recruiting trail over and over, Morris would still be on the team. He's doing what's best for him, which means if he does manage to turn the program around, he's going to leave as soon as a better offer comes his way. I'm not sure he's a good enough coach to actually turn this program around, but I am sure he won't stay around very long after. He's in this for himself. I feel bad for Amir Coffey.

There's no solution, either. If the team fires Pitino after the season, they owe him a $7 million buyout, and would potentially lose their top 25 recruiting class. Pitino is here to stay at least through next season. It's a mess that former AD and proven pervert Norwood Teague got the Gophers into, and to be honest, they deserve it. It's just a shame Pitino is as slimy and underhanded as is his father and the AD that hired him. Say what you want about Tubby Smith, but he always looked out for the kids. I'm not sure Pitino really cares.