Roster change, uncertainty keeping Richard Pitino busy

The men’s basketball head coach has had plenty of work to do over the past month.

Gophers Head Coach Richard Pitino looks on from the sidelines during a free throw attempt at Williams Arena on Wednesday, Feb. 26. The Gophers entered the second half with a 47-31 lead over the Maryland Terrapins.

Parker Johnson

Gophers Head Coach Richard Pitino looks on from the sidelines during a free throw attempt at Williams Arena on Wednesday, Feb. 26. The Gophers entered the second half with a 47-31 lead over the Maryland Terrapins.

by Nick Jungheim

Even without the NCAA Tournament, much has transpired over the past month in the college basketball world. The Gophers are no exception, with two players declaring for the NBA Draft, one entering the transfer portal and two newcomers joining the team.

Head coach Richard Pitino has also kept busy over the past weeks. Addressing the media via video conference on Thursday, Pitino said the team is not done adding to next year’s roster.

“With Payton Willis leaving, that leaves a void,” Pitino said. “We are looking for somebody who is versatile, somebody who can play the two and the three just like Payton did.”

Willis, who played 30.4 minutes per game last season, announced his decision to transfer last week, ultimately committing to the College of Charleston. In addition to finding his replacement, Minnesota is also waiting for guard Marcus Carr to decide whether he will return for 2020-21.

Although Carr announced his intention to enter the NBA Draft, he has retained his eligibility by not signing an agent, and may return to the Gophers if he chooses. However, amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, the timetable for that decision is complicated.

“I try to stay in touch with [Carr] as much as I can,” Pitino said. “We will kind of adapt as it goes. We have no idea where this thing is headed for any of us.”

One thing Pitino does know is that his front court will get a boost as transfers Brandon Johnson and Liam Robbins both committed to Minnesota last week. Still, it is only guaranteed that Johnson, a grad transfer from Western Michigan will play next season. Robbins, a sophomore at Drake in 2019-20, will need a waiver from the NCAA to become immediately eligible.

“We are looking into that with Liam,” Pitino said. “It is something that we will be aggressive with.”

Pitino said that he is hopeful Robbins will receive the waiver. He added that he sees the college basketball’s transfer process changing in the coming years. Currently, the NCAA is considering implementing a one-time transfer exception for all players, but it would not take effect until 2021-22.

“I don’t think it is if it happens, but when it happens that [the NCAA] will allow the one-time transfer,” Pitino said. “It’s also been very challenging because there are certain transfers out there we feel like we can get, but you don’t know if they will be eligible right away or not.”

As Pitino works on addressing internal uncertainty facing his program, he remains aware of the external uncertainty facing the whole world at this time. Having to stay home amid the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that all recruiting is now remote.

In addition to finding players to complete the roster, Pitino is also searching for a new member for his coaching staff. Pitino is attempting to replace former assistant Rob Jeter, who took the head coaching job at Western Illinois this offseason. That, Pitino says, has proven difficult.

“I’m being patient with that,” Pitino said. “It’s very important for me, when I hire an assistant, staff chemistry is so important. It’s very important that whoever we bring in understands how we operate on a daily basis.”

Even after this offseason’s challenges get resolved, Pitino is aware that the pandemic may have long lasting effects on college sports as a whole. With the athletic department estimating revenue losses as high as $75 million, he feels budget cuts will be inevitable and necessary.

“We need to look into it without affecting the performance of the program,” Pitino said. “That’s something where I think every athletic department and every coach needs to be smart about it.”

Nobody knows when college athletics will return or in what form. In the meantime, Pitino will remain active, both as a head coach and a father, trying to manage his children’s WWE obsession.

“The problem with wrestling if you have little kids is it devolves into its own little match in your living room.” Pitino said. “Then all of a sudden, they are beating each other up and taking each other down.”