The Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball program seeks to fill one vacant scholarship spot with a wing player before next season and compliment Wednesday’s front-court additions Liam Robbins and Brandon Johnson.
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino shared Thursday, April 16, he would like to add a shooting guard or small forward, ideally one with good size. That would restock the spot opened by Payton Willis, who completed his departure from the U by signing as a graduate transfer with College of Charleston on Wednesday.
“I think the natural reaction is ‘Why did he transfer? What is wrong with the program?’ ” Pitino said. “I don’t think that was the case with Payton at all, and I don’t think that is necessarily the case with a lot of these transfers.”
Pitino said Willis wanted drop down a level and have a better chance to take more shots. “I think he took a step back and made the right decision for him,” the coach said. “There is zero animosity toward Payton.”
Pitino’s singular scholarship focus lines up with starting point guard Marcus Carr expected to return to Minnesota next winter. After his sophomore season, Carr declared for the NBA draft on March 31, but left the door open to return to college.
“I think he wants to go through it, with the intent of keeping a great option open here,” Pitino said. “I think he loves playing here and he knows what he has here. I think he sees that. I don’t think he’s in a rush to leave, but I think he wants to go through the process like anybody should be allowed to do.”
With the coronavirus pandemic putting the pre-draft process on hold, what feedback Carr could receive in workouts and interviews with franchises is unknown and could extend into mid-summer.
“We want Marcus to get as much feedback as he can in these unique times but also let him know — and he knows — that he is a major part of this program,” Pitino said.
Another major turning point will be whether Robbins, a 7-footer who left Drake after his breakout sophomore season, will receive a hardship waiver or benefit from the NCAA’s potential vote later this year to allow immediate eligibility to first-time transfers.
“Obviously for our program, when you have a guy like Liam, who’s an impact guy, that’ll drastically impact your program,” Pitino said. “It’s also been very, very challenging because there are certain transfers out there that we feel like we can get, but we don’t know if they’re going to be eligible right away or not.”
The NCAA reportedly will discuss allowing one-time transfers on April 24 and then vote on it May 20. This signing period opened Wednesday and closes Aug. 1.
If the NCAA doesn’t grant immediate eligibility to first-time transfers, Pitino said they would be “aggressive” in pursuing a waiver for Robbins.
Cuts to expenses
With the Gophers athletics department bracing for an estimated potential $75 million loss of revenue if games are interrupted this fall, Pitino said pay cuts for coaches and reduction of other expenses has been put on the table.
“That’s the right thing to do,” Pitino said, adding that other cuts could be limiting the size of groups traveling to road games or flying commercial. “I think there’s ways that we can all save money to help the athletic department, and that helps the university.”
Athletics Director Mark Coyle is expected to outline avenues for possible cuts at the Board of Regents meeting in early May.
No pay up
Rick Pitino, the new coach at Iona, made a friendly bet with his son on a WWE Wrestlemania match between Brock Lesnar and Drew McIntyre earlier this month. The terms were the winner would get to host a game against the other’s program. While Richard lost betting on Lesnar, fans shouldn’t expect Minnesota to be headed to New Rochelle, N.Y. for a game this winter.
“It’s definitely not realistic to play at Iona, so we can squash that one right now,” said Richard, citing budget concerns. “I’m excited he’s at Iona, and hopefully we can meet up soon.”
Pitino said he has remaining patient in filling his assistant coach vacancy after Rob Jeter took the head coaching job at Western Illinois this spring. … The Gophers are scheduling the final nonconference for the 2020-21 schedule per usual this summer and will adjust if the pandemic interrupts those games.