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Minnesota coaching candidates: Porter Moser, Eric Musselman among best options to replace Richard Pitino

The Minnesota basketball job is only a mid-tier opening in the Big Ten, but it appears to offer something that is often lacking in high-dollar college athletics today: a long runway. No Minnesota basketball coach since the mid-1970s has stayed fewer than six seasons, and Richard Pitino — who was fired after eight seasons at the helm — kept the job even after missing the NCAA Tournament in his first three seasons.

Two straight losing seasons in Years 7 and 8 ultimately led to Pitino’s dismissal, but it’s not as if the Gophers need a total rebuild. In fact, this was a projected NCAA Tournament team just over a month ago. While star guard Marcus Carr seems likely to depart, the right hire in this position could retain some interesting pieces. 

Minnesota’s last two basketball coaching hires have spanned opposite ends of the spectrum. The program made what could be considered a retread hire with Tubby Smith in 2007 after Smith’s resignation at Kentucky. Then, they went with Pitino to replace Smith, despite the fact that Pitino was only 30 had just a single season of head coaching experience at FIU.

So who will the Gophers target this time around? Perhaps there is a happy medium to be found between baby-faced potential and grizzled veteran. Here are five names to consider for the opening:

Porter Moser, Loyola Chicago head coach

Moser has accomplished just about everything there is to accomplish at Loyola Chicago. By leading the Ramblers back to the NCAA Tournament, he’s proven the team’s 2018 Final Four run was no fluke. It’s a sustained, well-run program with four consecutive 20-win seasons to its credit, and Moser might be smart to hop on the coaching carousel while things are good. Perhaps Minnesota could work out a deal to bring Sister Jean as well.

Eric Musselman, Arkansas head coach

Musselman needed just two seasons to turn Arkansas into the second-best team in the SEC, as the roster management formula he patented at Nevada has translated seamlessly to the major-conference level. Considering the success he’s enjoying at Arkansas, it’s hard to see him leaving so quickly for what might be considered a comparable gig. Musselman has rarely stayed in one place long during a career that has dotted the map, however. Plus, there may be some sentimental attachment to the Minnesota job. Musselman’s father, Bill, held the position during Eric’s youth. Bill later coached the Minnesota Timberwolves with Eric doing a stint on his staff.

Darian DeVries, Drake head coach

The longtime Creighton assistant has turned a struggling Drake program around in just three seasons and has the Bulldogs in the NCAA Tournament for just the second time since 1971. In fact, before DeVries arrived, the last time the program posted three straight 20-win seasons was between 1969 and 1971. So, yes, it appears DeVries can coach. The former Northern Iowa guard is also a sound geographical fit.

Dennis Gates, Cleveland State head coach

Gates just guided Cleveland State to its second NCAA Tournament appearance since 1986 in only his second year on the job. The program had endured four straight losing seasons before his arrival, but Gates has shown enough quick wizardry to warrant consideration for a big-time gig. Something to love about Gates is that he spent 2011 through 2019 as a Florida State assistant under Leonard Hamilton. If the goal is to build a sustained winner at a program that lacks the tradition of others in the league — and that’s what Minnesota’s goal should be — then the Florida State blueprint is a good one to follow.

Craig Smith, Utah State head coach

Smith may seem like a wild card at first glimpse, but the third-year Utah State coach has roots in the upper Midwest and just guided the Aggies to a third straight 20-win season. In fact, Smith helped USU snap a seven-year NCAA Tournament drought in his first season on the job and has kept that trajectory since. He is originally from Minnesota and spent much of his early career in the Dakotas. As a former Nebraska assistant, he would also bring a bit of Big Ten experience to the position.

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