MINNEAPOLIS -- The Gophers men’s basketball program has assembled all the puzzle pieces and laid each of them out on the table. You can start to see the elements of a starting lineup and role players.
Now, head coach Richard Pitino hopes they can all fit together when next season starts.
Minnesota added two non-graduate transfers in 7-foot center Liam Robbins and 6-foot-6 swingman Both Gach, but both will need waivers from the NCAA in the next few months in order to play immediately.
“I thought our program got a lot better this spring,” Pitino said, including graduate transfer forward Brandon Johnson. “I’m really really excited whenever we do get to resume just to be able to get with these guys because I think we have some versatility, some talent and some depth.”
After failing to get a waiver for the 2018-19 season, Pittsburgh transfer Marcus Carr became one of the best point guards in the Big Ten last season, but the rising junior is now entertaining a move to leave early NBA and has to decide by August whether he will stay or go.
“I want him to mentally be really, really comfortable with whatever he wants to do,” Pitino said. “He’s got the time, so there is no point in rushing him. We will support him in whatever he wants to do. I think he understands that if he does come back, obviously being a sophomore captain, that he is going to have to really put this team on his back, and I think there is a lot of talent around him. I think we can compete at a high level.”
Pitino shared those comments and more in a 15-minute interview with the Pioneer Press this week.
How do you look at the three transfers coming in?
I think obviously for everybody the way that you do your job has been greatly impacted as well as the way you live your life.
For us to be able to get some of the best transfers out there in this climate is a testament to the job my staff did as well as I think we were able to sell individual success, a good team coming back as well as team success, and I think people really want to be a part of it.
What was the process in recruiting Gach? And what do you think he brings to your team?
I remember when we were playing Utah (in Salt Lake City last November) and I went out early. … I sat on the bench because I didn’t want to sit in the locker room. I saw Both going through his pregame routine and he is drenched in sweat and I’m sitting there going, “OK, this kid is going so hard, he is not going to have any energy for our game.” (Laughs)
That was the furthest thing from the truth. He played really, really well. (He finished with a team-high-tying 19 points and four rebounds in the Utes’ 73-69 win over the Gophers.)
It’s a testament to him. (Gach attended Austin High School in Minnesota before a year at Arizona Compass Prep.) and he got better and better. He has worked his butt off.
Ever since losing Amir (Coffey) early to the NBA, we weren’t able to replace him with really good length on the perimeter. We (were looking for) that. We stayed patient. Then when Both decided to transfer, it was a no-brainer for us with what our needs are to try to go after him hard.
The big question is if Liam and Both are able to get waivers. You’ve expressed optimism about that; what is the source of that optimism?
Without going into great specifics, we feel really, really confident with both. Both situations are different, with Liam’s and Both’s. (It’s pronounced Booth Gatch.) Both wanted to come back home and be with his family during a pandemic. I think that makes a lot of sense for the NCAA to see that. One of the benefits, I guess, is for a kid from Minnesota, we are the only school close to home. … It makes complete sense for the NCAA to give both of those kids waivers.
(Robbins is from Davenport, Iowa, which is 170 miles from his previous school, Drake in Des Moines, while the U is 330 miles away from home, but Robbins’ uncle, Ed Conroy is a U assistant coach, and his cousin, Hunt, is a backup guard.)
Obviously if we do get them, we feel like we have a really, really talented team.
Fans remember that Marcus didn’t get a waiver two years ago. Do you see that as a completely different situations?
They are different because the thing about Marcus is although in my mind it’s rational to think a player should get a waiver when his coach gets fired (Kevin Stallings from Pitt in March 2018), the NCAA hasn’t really put that into a bylaw.
We’ve kind of heard that kids that want to transfer closer to home during the coronavirus, it would make sense for them to be able to do that and play right away.
As much as the Marcus thing made sense, it also wasn’t anything in there that said (if a) coach gets fired, you are ruled eligible right away. Where I don’t see how the NCAA can’t do that for any kid that wants to go across the country to be closer to home — during a pandemic — I just don’t see how that makes any sense for them to hold a kid up.
What is the latest with Marcus?
Just staying in communication with him on it. It’s such a weird process. I feel bad for him. I think he wants to test the waters to the best of his ability, but really what can you do? You are not getting workouts and those things (with NBA teams due to COVID-19). We are in daily communication on how he is doing. Is he staying safe? Is he working out?
Looking back on last season’s tough stretch for the Gophers — losing eight of 10 games — how did that impact you and the team? (The U was 15-16 and going to miss the NCAA tournament when the season was cancelled.)
There are two types of scoreboards that you are going to be judged by. The public scoreboard, as a coach, it makes sense, wins and losses. But you have to have a coaches scoreboard and say are we playing the right way. Is it a missed free throw here, is it an unlikely break there? Are we far off? Where are we at? I still to this day believe that if we won two more games in the conference tournament, we would have gone to our third NCAA tournament in four years — which hasn’t happened here. We played a very, very challenging schedule with a young team. The Big Ten was one of the hardest conferences in the history of the sport this year. Just a couple of close losses.
That is what you do at this time of year: you evaluate — hey is there something that we are not doing right or can we get better at this? Certainly across the board there are things that we can get better at, but I thought we were pretty close. You look at all those numbers, with strength of schedule and our KenPom stuff. We are not far off by any means. Whenever we do get back to work, it’s just get a little bit better in everything we’re doing because we are pretty confident that we are continuing to go in the right direction.
You had seven new players last year and will have six newcomers this year. What’s key to making the transition with so many new guys?
We’re fortunate to have back-to-back NBA players coming out of this program. That is something that we are very, very proud of. When you talk about recruiting, you can sell the individual success of Daniel Oturu and the growth. Any big kid that we recruit we can show them that we had a top-50, top-75 recruit come into our program and play a good amount as a freshman, develop into an All-American as a sophomore and go on to the NBA to potentially be top-15 or top-20 pick. Amir with his success as well, so the more you are developing guys and recruiting better guys, you are going to have to replace them. Moreso with the one-time waiver thing, if it does pass (the NCAA is exploring immediate eligibility for one-time transfers), it’s just going to have to get used to new faces.
For me, it’s making sure how we play … they understand it. You can’t confuse them. We have to make sure that the vocabulary and the terminology is consistent so when you get a guy that isn’t going to be here until the end of the summer and they are transferring or whatever, they are ready to pick it up from Day 1. So we try to be really, really consistent with what we are doing and be very, very clear and concise in our teachings. It’s been able to work. We’ve had pretty good success with some new faces that have come into the program.
Is there a timeline on when you could get back on campus for workouts?
We were waiting on that vote from the NCAA on when we would be allowed to work with them. I didn’t want to bring them back here if we weren’t able to be with them. I think that everybody is safe at home and we are finding ways to safely work out and stay in shape. We trust those guys to do that, but we are looking at bringing them in the week of (July) 13th and go through all the testing and quarantining and be prepared to go July 20 and start workouts.