Pitino caps off Year 1 with a championship

The Gophers’ 65-63 NIT win finished off an inconsistent first season for the new coach.

Minnesota men's basketball team hold up their first place  trophy with excitement Thursday evening at the National Invitation Tournament finals at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Minnesota men’s basketball team hold up their first place trophy with excitement Thursday evening at the National Invitation Tournament finals at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Jace Frederick

NEW YORK — The Gophers posed for pictures, took turns cutting down the net and snapped selfies with the trophy — all hallmarks of a victorious postseason campaign.

At a glance, it was hard to tell that Minnesota was celebrating a National Invitation Tournament championship at Madison Square Garden instead of the more prestigious NCAA tournament in Texas.

As the final seconds ticked away in Minnesota’s 65-63 victory over Southern Methodist in Thursday night’s NIT title game, players mobbed each other in celebration. The Gophers were champions.

Heading into the season, that wasn’t a name anyone was ready to give this team. Many picked Minnesota to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten, and expectations couldn’t have been much lower for a squad a year removed from a victory in the NCAA tournament.

“[Coach Richard Pitino] told us nobody expected anything from us,” junior point guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “He told us we were going to fight, and we were going to change this program one year at a time. And winning this NIT championship starts that.”

Many unknowns surrounded Minnesota heading into the season. There were questions about personnel as Pitino patched together a roster with four players he brought in between last April and the start of the season. Many were skeptical about whether his up-tempo scheme would adjust well to Big Ten play. Doubts even surfaced about the young head coach himself — he had the last name, but did he have enough previous experience to build a program?

If Pitino’s first year is any indication, it seems Minnesota is on the right path.

The Gophers’ regular season had plenty of ups and downs, featuring big victories over the likes of Wisconsin, whose season just wrapped up in the Final Four, and losses to cellar dwellers Northwestern and Illinois.

Minnesota struggled to win on the road and to find any form of consistency — two factors that contributed to missing the NCAA tournament.

Then came the NIT.

It wasn’t a sexy postseason scenario, but it was a chance for players to improve and a chance for Pitino to continue to grow in his first season.

Those things both happened as Minnesota reeled off five consecutive victories to claim the title.

As senior guard Austin Hollins, who had just been named the NIT’s Most Outstanding Player, sat at the podium after the Gophers clinched the title, he made it clear the postseason run was more than just a few victories and a trophy.

“I think the biggest thing for the NIT was to help this team get that experience and build for the future,” Hollins said. “These guys worked extremely hard, and they didn’t quit.”

Minnesota exorcised some of its demons Thursday night in the victory. The team came back from seven points down with less than six minutes to play. It made a few big plays down the stretch to seal the victory. And it won in a road atmosphere — the crowd was about 80 percent SMU fans.

As a team, the Gophers grew.

“[With] our younger guys understanding what it takes to take that step forward, I thought we moved this program forward this year,” Pitino said.

The Gophers will lose four players from this year’s group, including Austin Hollins — the lone graduating starter. Still, Minnesota returns so much, including All-Big Ten honorable mention honorees Mathieu and junior guard Andre Hollins.

Pitino has already added three recruits to bolster next year’s rotation, with three scholarships still available.

That, along with the positive finish to this season, has the Gophers’ sights set on a loftier goal for next season — the NCAA tournament.

“We have a lot of guys returning,” Mathieu said. “We’re going to all hopefully have a good summer and hopefully make a run in the big-boy tournament next year.”

A non-vacated school record of 25 wins in the first year of the Richard Pitino era has silenced the voices questioning his coaching and the direction of this program.

“This is just the beginning,” Pitino told his players in the locker room after winning the title. “We’re going to continue to build a very, very strong program.”