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Pitino set to follow role models’ paths

Gophers coach Richard Pitino learned under two national champion coaches.

Empty white walls draped Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino’s office. Only hooks remained from what could have been Tubby Smith’s old décor.

Twelve days into his new position, Pitino has been buzzing through individual player workouts, hiring staff and taking the first steps in recruiting.

But he’s not settled in yet.

“Far, far from it,” Pitino said. “We’ll get there eventually. Don’t have time for that yet.”

Granted his first big-time gig at the age of 30, Pitino won’t let his one year of head coaching experience dwarf the fact he’s learned under some of the game’s greatest minds.

The Massachusetts native worked under the likes of Florida coach Billy Donovan and his own father, legendary Louisville coach Rick Pitino, before taking the reins of his own program at Florida International University last season.

Pitino is in line to follow in his role models’ footsteps.

“Billy [Donovan] was in the same boat I was in,” Pitino said. “He was 29 years old when he took over at Florida. Now he’s going head-to-head with my dad and the likes of Kentucky.”

Former Gators assistant Larry Shyatt, who worked with Pitino for two years at Florida, said the young coach is just a few years behind breakout coaches Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens.

Smart and Stevens have led mid-major programs Virginia Commonwealth and Butler to deep runs in the NCAA tournament recently. First-year Gophers athletics director Norwood Teague hired Smart when he was at VCU.

“[Pitino] has a gift,” Shyatt said. “Whether you’re young or old, that doesn’t matter. He has a gift to develop relationships and trust that very few of us have.”

Relationships are key to recruiting, which is a cornerstone to building a program. But with the Gophers losing two frontcourt starters in Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams, Pitino’s office walls might remain barren a little longer as he tries to fill the holes.

Pitino noted the role Mbakwe and Williams played in the Gophers’ success last season and quickly tempered expectations for next year’s campaign.

“My point is we’re losing two starters in the frontcourt,” Pitino said. “Two very good players, and we don’t have the depth necessary just yet.”

Pitino touted his style of play as “fun” for fans and players when he was introduced as the Gophers’ coach April 5. As of Tuesday, Pitino had run three 40-minute individual workouts with each player. He said all of them were focused on offense.

Because freshman forward Charles Buggs and sophomore big man Mo Walker have missed some time during individual workouts due to illness and injury, Pitino said he still has to wait to assess where recruiting needs lie.

Robbinsdale-Cooper High School coach Steve Burton leads one of Minnesota’s most touted 2014 recruits in Rashad Vaughn. Burton said youth might help the Gophers net the budding star.

Former 2013 Gophers recruits Alvin Ellis and Alex Foster were released from their letters of intent after Smith was fired March 25, and Minnesota has four scholarships available for the upcoming season.

“Maybe from Rashad’s point of view, having somebody younger reach out might help,” Burton said. “I remember getting my first job at 26; people weren’t sure I should be coaching either.”

Ron Everhart, an assistant coach at West Virginia, hired Pitino to his first assistant coaching job at Northeastern in 2005 at age 24.

Even then, Everhart said he could tell Pitino had been garnering experience long before he was earning a paycheck for it.

“He’s basketball matured beyond his years,” Everhart said. “He’s been around it since he’s been a young kid.”

Everhart used the same comparisons as Shyatt by saying Stevens and Smart are only a few steps ahead of Pitino on the timeline.

“Richard [Pitino] was able to do what they did in one year at Florida International,” Everhart said, referring to FIU’s first winning season in 13 years. “No question in my mind this guy has big-time success written all over him.”

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