Toward the end of the past season, available seats on the Gophers men’s basketball team’s bench were adding up.
Wally Ellenson decided to leave the team and eventually transfer, and later on the Gophers announced that Oto Osenieks’ knee injury would force him to end his playing career. Add on the one scholarship offer the Gophers chose not to use in the fall recruiting period, and the door had quickly opened this spring for three more fresh faces to join the three fall-period recruits.
Coach Richard Pitino didn’t hold back on his bevy of openings last month, ultimately signing three more recruits to fill all six 2014-15 scholarship slots and top off his second Gophers class.
This recruiting process was somewhat unorthodox because of the timing of Pitino’s hiring last year — it came about eight months before the fall signing deadline, when the majority of Division I recruits pen their letters of intent. But while the incoming bunch, at least initially, isn’t likely to knock the socks off anyone within the context of the talented Big Ten, it certainly addressed some major deficits. All but Illinois State transfer Zach Lofton, who must sit out next season per NCAA rules, could contribute immediately.
The Gophers propped up their frontcourt with a pair of power forwards and a center, who will need to be game-ready come 2015, after Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker have exhausted their eligibility. At the same time, the Gophers infused depth into a thinning backcourt that loses Austin Hollins, Maverick Ahanmisi and Malik Smith from this past season.
The Gophers’ biggest class since 2010 should increase competition for major rotation spots and reiterates Pitino’s tailored approach to recruiting that he first demonstrated a year ago. Some of the newbies will have to overachieve for this to be considered a truly successful class, but the identity Pitino is seeking is imminently clear in each of the six: versatile, athletic scorers who can run and shoot.
In a few months, we should find out how successful that recipe is in Pitino’s second season.
Here’s a look at the six newest Gophers:
The nitty gritty: 5-11,160-pound guard
Rivals ranking: ⋆⋆⋆
Hometown: Decatur, Ga.
His game: The Gophers envision Mason as a combo guard — albeit an undersized one — because his scoring ability might actually trump his distribution skills. He is the type of speedy shooter who would fit perfectly into Pitino’s system.
The nitty gritty: 6-5, 175-pound guard
Rivals ranking: ⋆⋆⋆; JUCO transfer; averaged 13.3 points per game — making 35.6 percent of his three-pointers — and four rebounds at Chipola Community College in Florida.
Hometown: Jacksonville, Fla.
His game: Pitino has called the addition of “Squirrel” critical after the loss of Austin Hollins. Morris’ maturity, flexibility and defensive skills should help fill that gap.
The nitty gritty: 6-4, 200-pound guard
Rivals ranking: Unranked; transfer who averaged 11.3 points on 33.9 percent shooting in a season at Illinois State.
Hometown: St. Paul
His game: A Columbia Heights High School product who grew up an avid Gophers fan, Lofton will have to sit out a season per NCAA rules. He has two years of eligibility remaining. He displayed some inconsistencies with the Redbirds but proved a capable scorer, posting 10 games with at least 15 points.
The nitty gritty: 6-8, 210-pound forward
Rivals ranking: ⋆⋆⋆
Hometown: Bothell, Wash.
His game: Martin is the type of athletic and potentially dynamic pick-and-pop power forward Pitino craves. The avid and entertaining tweeter spent his high school years showing he’s capable of both finishing at the basket and stepping out for a perimeter shot.
The nitty gritty: 6-9; 205-pound forward
Rivals ranking: Unranked
Home country: Senegal
His game: The athletic, physical big man currently plays at the Canarias Basketball Academy in Spain, where he has excelled on both ends of the court. The versatile power forward speaks three languages fluently: French, Spanish and English.
The nitty gritty: 6-11, 230-pound center
Rivals ranking: ⋆⋆⋆
Home country: Mali
His game: Konate, who currently plays at the Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas, brings much-needed size to a team that is about to lose all its center prospects. Konate is still somewhat raw, but his athleticism, versatility, rebounding and shot-blocking ability give him plenty of upside.