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Zulgad: Would Gophers AD replace Richard Pitino if team falls short of NCAA tournament?

Richard Pitino
Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino directs his players against Nebraska in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

The Gophers’ hopes of getting into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament suffered a potentially major setback on Thursday night at Williams Arena as Northwestern ended a 13-game losing streak with a 67-59 victory over Minnesota. The loss also will raise plenty of questions about Richard Pitino’s future and whether the Gophers coach will be back for a ninth season.

Even before the setback, Pitino was one of five college coaches listed as being on one of the hottest seats in a recent article that appeared on the CBS Sports website.

Matt Norlander wrote: The Golden Gophers have had their table turned over in the past six weeks. This is a team that was 10-2 four days into the new year, looking well-established and well on its way to the NCAA tournament. Minnesota’s gone 3-8 since, putting its Big Dance outlook in jeopardy and, in the process, bringing Pitino’s job security into question. I agree with (CBS’ Gary) Parrish’s pick of (DePaul’s Dave) Leitao; a change there is a matter of time. But beyond him, Pitino’s situation could be as hot as anyone else in a major conference given how Minnesota is losing (and losing by large margins) lately. This is Pitino’s eighth season with the program. He’s made two NCAA Tournaments and had a sub-.500 team last season. Overall record: 140-118. For me, it comes down to this: If Minnesota makes the NCAAs, Pitino stays. If it doesn’t, he doesn’t.

The Gophers are 13-11 overall and 6-11 in the Big Ten, having lost four in a row and seven of nine. This included an embarrassing 94-63 loss last Saturday to No. 5 Illinois at The Barn. Minnesota’s performance on Thursday night was worse. The Gophers were 4-for-27 on three-pointers and worked to match Northwestern mistake for mistake. The Gophers are the only Big Ten team without a win on the road this season (0-8) and have games remaining at Penn State (8-12, 5-11) and Nebraska (5-17, 1-14). Minnesota will then close its regular season March 6 against Rutgers (13-9, 9-9) at Williams Arena.

Joe Lunardi, who projects the field for the 68-team NCAA tournament, had the Gophers among the last four in in his latest projections on Tuesday but the loss to Northwestern will change that. The Gophers have impressive home wins over ranked teams in Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Purdue but haven’t won since Feb. 11. It doesn’t help matters that guard Gabe Kalscheur, one of the team’s top defenders, is out because of a broken shooting hand he suffered this month. Center Liam Robbins had been limited after aggravating his sprained ankle against Purdue and did not play against Northwestern.

The initial thought had been that Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle would not make a coaching change in the midst of a pandemic and with significant budget issues facing the department. The Board of Regents voted last fall to cut three men’s sports programs, including indoor track and field, gymnastics and tennis. At the time, the athletic department said it projected the pandemic impact to be between $45 million and $65 million and that the cuts would save the university between $2 and $3 million.

But, as was pointed out in the article on the CBS Sports site, there already are 11 Division I openings and that total likely will grow in the coming weeks. Some schools are back to business as usual when it comes to coaching moves. Pitino, 38, who was Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2016-17, has a $1.75 million buyout if he is fired before April 30.

The Gophers would then have to launch a search for a new coach who would be looking for a significant payday. As Darren Wolfson of KSTP-TV and SKOR North pointed out on his Scoop segment Thursday on the Mackey & Judd podcast, trying to predict what Coyle will do is difficult because he rarely speaks to the media and has shown a willingness to make changes when he feels they are necessary.

Coyle’s biggest concern might be that if the Gophers miss the NCAA tournament, and Pitino remains coach, that fans won’t return to Williams Arena next season when they have the chance. Last season, the Gophers went 8-12 in the conference and finished 12th in the 14-team league. This season, the Gophers have gone from being ranked in the Associated Press poll to sitting 11th in the conference. It doesn’t help that Pitino’s record in the Big Ten is 54-93 (.367).

Combine that with a late-season meltdown that could cost the Gophers a berth in the NCAA tournament and you have to wonder whether Coyle will give Pitino a mulligan or decide he has no choice but to make a change,