Richard Pitino was dealing with his own adversity with the Gophers men’s basketball program when he decided to reach out to show support for another Big Ten coach going through a tough time, Tom Izzo.
Michigan State’s Hall of Fame coach was under heavy scrutiny in late January when an ESPN “Outside the Lines” report mentioned his program, along with the Spartans football team, had alleged sexual assault incidents involving players years ago ignored by university officials.
Michigan State was already dealing with a devastating crisis, the sex abuse scandal involving former Olympic and Spartans gymnast doctor Larry Nassar.
Right after the Nassar news hit was around the time Pitino last spoke to Izzo, who will bring his No. 2 Spartans into Williams Arena on Tuesday night to play the Gophers.
“I talked to him after that whole stuff,” Pitino said. “Just reached out to him just as a coach, because I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”
Pitino isn’t surprised how Izzo’s team didn’t let distractions keep it from staying in contention for the Big Ten title. The Spartans were the new No. 1 team in the country in the coaches’ poll on Monday after winning eight games in a row, most notably handing former Big Ten leader Purdue a second consecutive loss Saturday.
“I don’t think the players are dealing with that,” Pitino said about the scandal. “I’m sure Coach Izzo is. I don’t think the players it really affects them in any way. I can’t tell, certainly. They probably have the best talent in the country.”
Izzo has chosen not to address any of the reports accusing his university of covering up sexual assault allegations by his program. Football coach Mark Dantonio immediately denied that Michigan State handled any information improperly years ago.
Instead of giving his take on validity of past investigations, Izzo has shown compassion for Nassar’s victims. He met with almost every player on his team to make sure they were not being overwhelmed by the evolving situation on their campus.
After All-America candidate Miles Bridges hit a tiebreaking three-pointer in the closing seconds to beat the Boilermakers at home Saturday, a teary-eyed Izzo talked about how big the victory was for a lot of people, including sex assault victims and late former Spartans coach Jud Heathcote honored that day.
“This team’s been through a lot,” Izzo said on the court after the game. “I’m happy for [Heathcote] sitting up there looking down. I’m happy for our team. I’m thinking of the survivors. And I’m happy for our fans and our community.”
Bridges held off on the NBA and returned for his sophomore year at Michigan State to win a national title … and for moments like Saturday. But all he could think about was Izzo after the marquee victory.
“We won this one for Coach,” Bridges said, “everything he’s been through.”
The Spartans are riding an emotional high entering Tuesday night’s game at the Barn. Meanwhile, the Gophers are experiencing their lowest point of the season so far, losers of seven consecutive games and 10 of 11 since center Reggie Lynch was suspended in early January for an alleged sexual assault incident in 2016.
Pitino, who pointed out last month that his school followed protocol in Lynch’s case, said Lynch’s status remains unchanged. The 6-foot-10 senior is still a member of the team. He is currently dealing with a process to appeal the decision, but the Gophers aren’t expecting him back.
The difference between the Spartans overcoming adversity and the Gophers crumbling during their off-court distraction is more than just one team having drastically more talent.
Injuries continue to be the biggest issue sinking the Gophers’ season — and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight with only a few regular-season games left.
Pitino said Monday that starting guards Amir Coffey (shoulder) and Dupree McBrayer (leg) both were still not cleared to play Tuesday.
“There’s been a lot of things that have hit,” Pitino said of his team. “We’ve got to continue to coach them very hard and continue to whomever is available tomorrow put them in position to win.”
gophers vs. No. 2 Michigan State
8 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN2)