Players welcome Pitino with praise

Andrew Krammer

Rodney Williams was hanging out with fellow Gophers basketball players when he heard the news that Richard Pitino was hired.

The outgoing senior said his teammate, sophomore Oto Osenieks, sent the team a group message about the hire — and nobody believed him.

“Ten minutes later it was all over the news,” Williams said.

Two weeks earlier, after sophomore Andre Hollins, junior Austin Hollins and Williams earned their first career NCAA tournament victory, they were answering questions about Minnesota’s new basketball coach.

Pitino, 30, is the youngest basketball coach in the Big Ten.

With his signature smile, Andre Hollins said Pitino’s youth is no detriment to running a big-time program.

“He learned under some of the best coaches in America,” Hollins said. “He proved that in Florida [International], coming in and having the first winning season in 13 years. That speaks volumes by itself.”

Pitino took Florida International to the Sun Belt tournament championship game this season and finished 18-14.

Pitino met with the Gophers before his introductory press conference Friday to discuss his vision and plans for the program.

“He gave us a positive vibe,” Austin Hollins said. “He knows what he wants to do, and I think the guys are going to be on board with that.”

Sometimes during coaching changes, players transfer to different schools because the coach who recruited them was let go.

But Andre and Austin Hollins said they don’t expect any casualties from the coaching search.

“I haven’t heard anything about transfers,” Andre Hollins said. “I think [Teague] made the right choice.”

Pitino lauded the pressing style of play he plans to bring to Gophers basketball, one that he said molds everything he’s learned from his father, Rick Pitino, and former boss Billy Donovan, the head coach at Florida.

Austin Hollins said his work ethic and Pitino’s vision should ensure there’s no setback in his senior season.

“[Pitino] really wants hard-nosed defense and up the court, run-and-gun on offense,” Austin Hollins said. “Our goals don’t change — we want to make the NCAA tournament again.”

Williams, who is graduating in May, said a part of him would have liked to learn under a name like Pitino.

“Anytime you get a guy that’s been with the caliber of his father and coach Donovan, you want to learn and see what he has to offer,” Williams said. “Maybe I’ll come back during summers and he can help me out.”

The two Hollinses and Williams expressed disappointment in the firing of Tubby Smith, but they seemed optimistic about Pitino.

“It was weird,” Andre Hollins said. “It was kind of like being at home and then having your parents leave and having a new set of parents come in.”