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The Dagger

Minnesota’s gamble on Richard Pitino may look shrewd in a few years

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Richard Pitino (Getty Images)

If Minnesota fans are hoping their new coach turns out to be a young version of his father, they're probably only half right.

Those close to Richard Pitino say the 30-year-old rising star in the coaching industry is a blend of his dad and his dad's most well-known protege.

Richard Pitino did indeed inherit Rick Pitino's facial features, quick wit and Long Island accent, but his laid-back nature and ability to relate well with players is more reminiscent of Florida coach Billy Donovan. And Richard's strong work ethic and attention to detail is consistent with both his mentors.

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"Richard is not like me at all when I was his age. He's exactly like Billy," Rick Pitino said in March of last year. "His mannerisms are a lot like Billy. He loves offense like Billy loves offense. He's a great scout, a great preparer of game plans, like Billy was. He's very humble, like Billy was. He laughs like Billy. You know, like Billy told my wife, 'I really miss having fun with Richard.' He likes to have a lot of fun. He's very close with the players, like Billy was."

Minnesota's decision to hire Richard Pitino is a good gamble for the Gophers considering their limited options.

Shaka Smart, Mick Cronin and Flip Saunders reportedly were among those who already had taken themselves out of consideration and other established head coaches weren't likely to jump at a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten job with modest pedigree and facilities. As a result, why not take a chance on an unproven but promising young coach whose lone season as a head coach was a clear success?

After shuttling back and forth between his dad's staff at Louisville and Donovan's staff at Florida for five years, Richard Pitino inherited a rebuilding job last spring from Isiah Thomas at Florida International. The younger Pitino achieved more in his first year than most thought possible, recruiting proficiently, winning 18 games and reaching the Sun Belt title game before falling to Western Kentucky.

The assumption when Pitino accepted the FIU job was that he'd be there at least a couple years before using it as a stepping stone, but perhaps it shouldn't be a huge surprise that Minnesota targeted him so quickly.

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Norwood Teague, Minnesota's first-year athletic director, struck gold at VCU when he hired Smart as a a young, relatively unknown assistant. A recommendation from Donovan had a lot to do with Smart getting the VCU job, and it would be no surprise if Donovan put in a good word for Pitino in this case too.

The roster Pitino inherits at Minnesota is good enough to compete for an NCAA bid next season. Frontcourt standouts Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams are graduating, but the Gophers return their whole backcourt from a team that cracked the top 10 in the AP poll early this season but faded in Big Ten play and narrowly made the NCAA tournament.

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