Pitino, Collins face Big Ten challenges

Minnesota’s Richard Pitino and Northwestern’s Chris Collins are the new kids on the Big Ten block. And, each has a big hill to climb to keep pace with the likes of Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin, among other programs.

The Golden Gophers are coming off a 21-win season that included a win in the NCAA tourney under Tubby Smith. The 30-year-old Pitino—son of Rick—has one season of experience, guiding Florida International to an 18-14 mark last season. Is he ready for this colossal step? Hard to say. But Pitino’s early impressions of the Big Ten are interesting.

“I think the one misconception I think is everybody thinks it’s a grind-it-out league,” said Pitino. “But I watched Indiana’s exhibition game yesterday while I was working out and they want to run. I’ve watched Michigan State. They want to get out and run. Ohio State. All these teams really want to get out and run. I think people think it’s a grind-‘em-out, physical league, but when I was in the Big East the first time around it’s probably as physical as it gets. So, no, I think they’re all great styles — they’re pretty similar to a lot of the programs I’m used to. I think what happens is as you get into conference, the game slows down a lot. I think that’s just the way it works, especially with officiating and so on. So it’s not as different, I think, as people may think.”

The high-energy Pitino wants to play a running system, but the Minnesota roster lacks depth, especially up front. And questions beg at other positions for a team most feel has a limited ceiling this winter. The lone certainty: Unrelated guards Andre and Austin Hollins will be the impetus. And they are nice fits for the push-it tempo Pitino wants to employ.

Collins arrives in Evanston with even less head coaching experience than Pitino. But like Pitino, Collins is the son a famous dad—Doug, a former NBA player and coach. Unlike Pitino, Collins doesn’t have as big a building job at Northwestern. This program made four NIT appearances in a row prior to last year’s slump to a 13-19 mark. It’s still looking for its maiden trip to the Big Dance.

Keys to success in 2013-14 will be to have Drew Crawford (back from shoulder surgery) and JerShon Cobb (back from academic exile) become key players in an offense that will be unencumbered after laboring in the highly structured Princeton offense of ex-coach Bill Carmody. And 7-footer Alex Olah needs to shore up an iffy frontcourt in what will be a more free-flowing offensive system.

“I think in Year One, you know, as we’re getting started, kind of the approach I’ve made, whether it be good or bad — and it’s not all bad,” said Collins. “There’s a lot of good. This is a program that was four of the last five years in the NIT and two years ago is a close loss away from being in the NCAA Tournament.

“So there was a lot of positives as well. But whether it be good or bad, I think what we’ve all tried to do is just get a fresh start. And it’s a clean slate for everyone. It’s a whole new staff. A number of players are coming off injuries. It’s a clean slate for them. And the main thing I’ve tried to do more than anything is lay a foundation for what we want our program to be about, how hard we play, how we practice, the attention to detail. And those are things that I think carry over time.”

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About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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shookwriter27 on 10/31/2013 @ 6:53pm EST Said:

Chris Collins will soon have Northwestern in the NCAA Tournament for the first time.