JF

That was something, huh? Zips, if and when he wakes up from last night’s mind-numbing, never-ending Gophers win(?) will be back with his typically excellent game review, and I’ll be back later tonight with a preview of the NIT championship (!?) game. I have a few minutes to kill right now, just enough time to discuss some of the coaching situations that arose in the last few minutes last night.

Before the NIT started, I pointed out that this otherwise meaningless tournament would be an excellent development opportunity for Richard Pitino in his still very young career. After last night, Pitino probably feels like he aged 20 years in 10 minutes.

The Golden Gophers were down a 7 footer against one of the tallest teams in the country, and were down their next two tallest players for much of the night when Mo Walker and Joey King found themselves in foul trouble early and often. Pitino had no choice but to throw out some ridiculous line-ups (power forward Austin Hollins!), including previously sorta-retired Oto Osenieks. This won’t be the last game where Pitino faces strange personnel circumstances, and he passed mostly with flying colors. Somehow Joey King was the only Gopher to foul out, and despite being outsized and outnumbered, the Gophers won.  I’d much rather see Pitino have to juggle his rotation in an extreme circumstance for the first time in a relatively consequence-free environment than say, with the NCAA tournament on the line. I’m very confident that he will handle things just as well the next time this happens.

Unfortunately, the end of game coaching was quite dreadful on both benches. Pitino was not prepared at all for the possibility that Malik Smith, who hasn’t made a meaningful shot in two months, would miss free-throws with the game on the line. His team was not prepared to respond to this eventuality. Smith missed, the Gophers didn’t get a rebound, and didn’t get in front of the Seminoles who eventually buried a three-pointer to force overtime. Thanks to the bloviating by ESPN’s D-squad announcing team, one would think that the greatest error was not fouling, despite reams of evidence suggesting that fouling up three is nothing but a coin-flip. The real error in Pitino’s ways was having a team that had no idea what to do against an opponent that needed a desperation three-pointer. Options abounded if he had time to tell his players what to do. If he had called a time-out after the first missed free-throw, his team would have been able to act on those options. The situation repeated itself at the end of overtime, with the same result, except the shot didn’t go in. Those late game teachable moments will help Pitino the next time the Gophers are in that situation, and I’d be surprised if he is that ill-prepared again.

And speaking of some confusing coaching choices, Leonard Hamilton’s strategy to foul the Gophers before in-bounds plays may have cost his team a win. Fouling before the ball is put into play saves some time from running off the clock. However, substitutions are illegal when no time runs off the clock. Hamilton essentially traded having the wrong personnel on the floor for fractions of a second. A buzzer beater can be hoisted a split-second sooner, but it can never be shot by a guy stuck on the bench because he couldn’t come into the game. This was a deliberate strategy, since it happened several times, and it failed. If Pitino had ever entertained the foul before the inbound pass strategy before, he probably won’t think about it again. Lessons can be learned from watching others screw up.

The best coaches are great teachers, but also great students too. Lessons were learned last night, and that will make Richard Pitino a better coach tomorrow night, and a lot other nights still to come.