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New University of Minnesota men's basketball coach Richard Pitino spoke to a crowd outside the Minnesota Lakes Maritime Museum on Monday night. Pitino was in Alexandria with other Gopher coaches and Athletic Director Norwood Teague as part of the Gopher Road Trip. (Eric Morken, Echo Press)

Pitino: "All it takes is hard work"

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New University of Minnesota head men's basketball coach Richard Pitino seems completely at ease in settings like the one he found himself in at the Minnesota Lakes Maritime Museum on Monday evening.

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Pitino joined six other University of Minnesota coaches, along with Athletic Director Norwood Teague, in Alexandria as part of the second leg of the Gophers Road Trip Tour.

Pitino was how he has been described at most of these stops. He got a lot of laughs during his short time on the stage, while also touching on common topics like recruiting and the current state of the program.

Pitino continued to praise 6'10 big man Maurice Walker, who he said has lost 30 pounds since he took the job. He also noted that 6'8" redshirt freshman Charles Buggs has gained 12 pounds of muscle, while complimenting the entire team on buying into a conditioning program that will help them play the up-tempo style that he wants to play.

I caught up with Pitino after the program on Monday night to talk a little bit more about how things are going since his hire in early April.

EM: You have talked about a passionate fan base a lot since taking the job. As someone new to the state, how beneficial is it for you to come on stops like this and see the fans first hand?

Pitino: For a new head coach here in Minnesota, it's good for everybody across the board because you start to understand the importance of this university to everybody throughout the whole state. It's not just about the Twin Cities, but it's about [outstate Minnesota]. That's very unique. It's something special. I think it means a lot, and we use it a lot in recruiting.

EM: You have focused a lot on guards in this 2013 recruiting class (signed guards Deandre Mathieu, Daquein McNeil and Malik Smith). How comfortable are you that you've solved some of the turnover problems that hurt this team for much of last season?

Pitino: It's hard to say right now to be honest with you, just because I haven't been able to work with them. People ask me, they want me to kind of talk about the team, but I think it's a little premature right now. From what I watched on film, there's some nice pieces, but I don't know how those guys are going to react to my coaching style as opposed to [former] coach [Tubby] Smith's coaching style. So it's kind of tough to really predict that right now."

EM: You mentioned Charles Buggs has gained 12 pounds since you took over. What kind of ceiling do you see for him?

Pitino: I think he has one of the highest ceilings on the team, and the way I mean that is I think his growth, he's not even close to tapped his potential. He's a great, great athlete. He's got great length.

Obviously, no one's seen him because he redshirted last year, but I'm excited about him. He's got to put on a little bit more weight, a little bit more muscle just so he can be a little bit more physical, but I really like him. I think he's perfect for how we play.

EM: Fans are excited to see what Andre Hollins can do in your system. What are expectations for him next year?

Pitino: I think he's a really good player. I think he's one of the better guards out there, so we're going to rely on him a lot. We're going to rely on him to have the ball in his hands. Because he's been a proven entity last year, now he's going to have to understand that when you have a great year as a sophomore, it's only going to get harder as a junior because teams are going to key on you even more. He's got to be prepared for that.

EM: How have recruits from across the country responded when you talk to them about the University of Minnesota?

Pitino: They've been very responsive. I think when you look at the University of Minnesota, we've got to do a great job of bragging about what we have. We're in one of the best cities, Twin Cities, in all the country.

We got an unbelievable fan base that I didn't even know about, so that's our job to really brag and tell people about that. Then you're in the Big Ten, which is the best basketball conference in all of college basketball. We've got a lot to talk about, a lot to be proud of and we'll continue to work and develop those relationships.

EM: People often mention a lack of facilities and some question whether the program can compete near the top of the Big Ten consistently. How do you respond to those who think you can't?

Pitino: I try not to worry about what people tell us that we can't do. I worry only about what we can do. I know we've got enough to compete at the highest level.

EM: You have been on the job a little more than two and a half months now. Has anything surprised you about the program?

Pitino: I probably didn't realize how good the support really was. For whatever reason, I don't know, I just wasn't really familiar with it. The fan support is terrific. You can do great things when people care, and they care here. They really do.

We've got to catch up on a couple things, and we'll do that. But all it takes is hard work. It really does. You just got to beat the bushes in recruiting. You got to develop as many relationships as possible and then you got try to get the most out of your players. That's what we plan to do.

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Eric Morken
Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.
(320) 763-1229
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