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Richard Pitino has New Mexico getting Final Four hype

As Pitino's Lobos rise, Ben Johnson and the Minnesota Gophers have low expectations from the national media.
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If the Final Four in men's college hoops next April features Arkansas, Creighton, Michigan State and New Mexico, not only is John Fanta a genius, but so too is Richard Pitino because he will have taken the Lobos from being a 6-win team in 2019-20 to a championship contender in the span of just four years. 

Fanta, a respected college basketball announcer and reporter for FOX, is picking New Mexico, Arkansas, Creighton and Michigan State to make the Final Four this season. 

That'd be alright for a guy who was fired after eight seasons and just two NCAA Tournament appearances as head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, but it would also be extremely Minnesota sports.

It was March 15, 2021 when Minnesota athletics director Mark Coyle announced that Pitino was out after leading the men's basketball team to a 54-96 record in the Big Ten over eight years. 

"Decisions like this are never easy, but after evaluating this season and the previous eight years of our program under Richard, it is clear to me that new leadership is needed," Coyle explained. "We have one of the best practice facilities in the nation, a historic competition venue and a state that produces top-caliber talent. This is an extremely attractive job."

Ben Johnson was hired in Pitino's place and Minnesota went 13-19 in Year 1 and 9-22 in Year 2 under Johnson, including a 2-17 record in the Big Ten. The Gophers are off to a 1-0 start this season but they were picked by the media to finish dead last in the Big Ten. 

"The Gophers didn't make enough high-quality additions to spark optimism that a major surge up the standings is in store," CBS Sports' preseason prediction, which picked Minnesota 13th of 14 teams in the Big Ten, reads. "But Johnson's club does have one of the league's more promising frontcourts with Dawson Garcia and Pharrel Payne and should be more competitive with better health."

Richard Pitino

Jan 14, 2023; San Diego, California, USA; New Mexico Lobos head coach Richard Pitino (right) reacts toward an official during the second half against the San Diego State Aztecs at Viejas Arena. 

Why so much hype for Pitino's Lobos? For starters, they won 22 games and were ranked as high as No. 21 in the AP Top 25 Poll last season. The crumbled late in the season and missed the NCAA tourney, but four Division I transfers and two highly touted freshmen have raised expectations raised. 

Just look how the Sante Fe New Mexican began a story earlier this week before Pitino's squad smoked Texas Southern 92-55 on Tuesday night: "The curtain is about to rise on one of the most anticipated seasons in nearly a decade for the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team."

Leading the hype for New Mexico is a backcourt that is considered by many to be among the best in the country. In fact, if you ask starting guard Jamal Mashburn Jr. – yes, that same Jamal Mashburn Jr. who played one season at Minnesota before following Pitino to New Mexico – both he and Jaelen House form the best combo in the country. 

“I would say, first of all, I don’t think we’re ‘one of the best.’ I think we are the best backcourt in the country,” Mashburn told the Albuquerque Journal in September

House averaged 16.9 points and Mashburn Jr. scored 19.1 points per game last season and both were all-Mountain West selections. 

They also added 6-foot-10 Nelly Junior Joseph, who transferred to New Mexico after playing for Pitino's father, Rick Pitino, at Iona where he averaged 14.9 points and 9.3 rebounds per game last season. 

Another reason Lobos fans are pumped is the arrival of 4-star recruit JT Toppin, who was the Class 4A Texas State Player of the Year as senior in high school. He had 11 points, 9 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks in 18 minutes against Texas Southern. 

The hype is real for Pitino and New Mexico. Meanwhile, Minnesota head coach Ben Johnson has the Gophers off to a 1-0 start after a win over Bethune-Cookman, though there isn't anyone in the country looking at the Gophers as a Final Four contender much less a team that has a very strong chance to make the NCAA tourney.