Three years ago, Richard Pitino and Chris Collins were two of the hottest young college basketball coaches in the country.
Pitino became the youngest Big Ten coach of the year after the biggest one-year turnaround ever for the Gophers’ program. Collins was up for national coach of the year honors after Northwestern’s first NCAA tournament appearance ever.
Both schools scrambled to make sure other programs didn’t lure their coaches away.
Their struggles to win consistently since have caused the script to flip. Whether both Pitino and Collins are on the hot seat is up for debate. But the status of their respective programs isn’t debatable — they’re struggling to stay afloat.
“That’s the thing, people don’t realize the difference between a win and a loss,” Pitino said on his radio show this week. “There’s a fine line. So, you don’t need to just blow up the program and change everything.”
When the Gophers (12-13, 6-9) and Northwestern (6-19, 1-14) meet for the second time this season Sunday afternoon in Evanston, Ill., it will be the first time Pitino and Collins face each other when both of their teams have losing records.
Collins’ record since the Wildcats’ magical season three years ago is 34-55, 11-42 in the Big Ten. Pitino’s record since his first trip to the Big Dance is 49-44 with a second NCAA appearance, but he’s only 19-34 in the league.
Their seasons have gone a bit differently since 2017. But their teams are suffering from similar issues. They have talent but not enough depth and experience to compete for a spot in the Big Ten’s upper half.
“There are three teams in our league who have replaced the most players,” Pitino said Saturday. “That’s Northwestern, Nebraska and us. And so, it takes time. You’re going to have good moments. You’re going to have bad moments, especially when you’re replacing so many guys.”
The Gophers have been much more competitive in the Big Ten the past two seasons than Northwestern. Minnesota was a bubble team until recently, losing consecutive home games for the first time since the 2017-18 season.
Dreadful offense has contributed to the Gophers’ five losses in the past six games, and they were abysmal in crunch time the last two. They were outscored a combined 19-0 down the stretch in losses to Iowa and Indiana. Minnesota ranks 14th in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage (39.4), 14th in three-point percentage (27.6) and 12th in scoring (65.2).
“We just have to be a cohesive unit,” said junior Payton Willis after the Gophers were outscored 8-0 in the last 2 ½ minutes of the Indiana loss. “[We have to] express why we’re frustrated instead of going in and taking it all into yourself and not being a good teammate.”
The Gophers have one of the Big Ten’s top inside-outside tandems with sophomores Marcus Carr and Daniel Oturu. Winning the last five regular-season games isn’t something fans see in the cards, so Pitino and his players are trying to avoid reading the frustration on social media.
“It’s nearly impossible to drown that noise out,” Pitino said. “As a coach you kind of go into your cocoon a little bit, especially when you know things are bad. You’re not going to go online as much. You try to let your guys understand you still have opportunities in front of us.”
Northwestern seems far removed from that NCAA tournament. A combination of injuries and inconsistency of newcomers (five freshmen and lacrosse player-turned-Division I guard Pat Spencer) have the Wildcats in danger of finishing 14th in the Big Ten for the second straight season.
“Sometimes it can be tough in a brutal league like the Big Ten,” Collins said earlier this season. “We have one of the youngest teams in college basketball, the youngest in the Big Ten.”
The Gophers and Wildcats are the two youngest teams in the Big Ten, per KenPom.com. Northwestern is tied with Nebraska with a Big Ten-worst 10-game losing streak, but five of the losses have been by single digits. Nine of Minnesota’s 13 losses have been by single digits.
Like Northwestern, Minnesota’s players are trying to turn their attention away from criticism of their coach to what they have to do to turn things around.
“This is the Big Ten and everybody goes through their lulls,” Carr said Saturday. “The outside noise gets loud. You just can’t let that doubt creep in as a team. We know who we are. We just have to stick together and right the ship.”