Column: Pitino’s first season was a success, ya feel me?

Samuel Gordon

The NCAA tournament this season has been nothing short of phenomenal. It’s featured down-to-the-wire finishes, upsets galore and Cinderella stories.

But the NIT? Not quite as exciting.

Still, the Gophers are alive and will play for a shot at the NIT title at Madison Square Garden before the season wraps up.

Whether the team wins it all or comes up short, the first season of the Richard Pitino era will be in the books at week’s end.

And all things considered, it was a big success.

While preseason polls had Minnesota pegged near the bottom of the Big Ten, the Gophers stayed afloat and were competitive for most of the year. Minnesota also earned a signature win over Wisconsin, a team that just locked up its first Final Four berth in the Bo Ryan era.

In the end, it wasn’t enough to garner an invitation to the Big Dance, but the current NIT run is proof that the team was right on the brink.

Yes, Pitino’s boys still had a minor meltdown in February — and there were a couple questionable home losses during the season — but the good outweighed the bad.

Pitino brought in a trio of players who all turned out to be key contributors on this year’s squad.

DeAndre Mathieu was the team’s best player and played with a fearlessness that the program hasn’t seen in years.

Malik Smith, a senior transfer from FIU who came to campus with Pitino, displayed unwavering confidence from the perimeter that helped the team win a few games. 

And Joey King, a transfer from Drake, started 13 games at the power forward position. He’s played well down the stretch and will be around another two years.

Mathieu will be back next season, too, and so will Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker — former no-names turned valuable big men.

In just a year, Pitino’s proven that he knows how to develop players.

That’s huge for Minnesota, which doesn’t attract the five-star talent that can turn a program around.

In the NCAA tournament, three of the remaining four teams rode veteran players — guys who weren’t ready for Broadway right away but sure as hell are now — to the Final Four.

That’s the ticket in college basketball, and Pitino gets that.

Next year, there will be loftier expectations. Mathieu, Walker, Eliason and leading scorer Andre Hollins will all be seniors, and junior college transfer Carlos Morris is expected to step in and play right away.

That means the Gophers will have some of that veteran know-how that’s necessary to win.

So when fans tune in to the NIT this week, they should do so with an open mind, knowing that the foundation for bigger and better things is in place.

Thanks to Pitino.

Ya feel me?