This is Amelia Rayno's third season on the Gophers men's basketball beat. She learned college basketball in North Carolina (Go Tar Heels!), where fanhood is not an option. In 2010, she joined the Star Tribune after graduating from Boston's Emerson College, which sadly had no exciting D-I college hoops to latch onto. Amelia has also worked on the sports desk at the Boston Globe and interned at the Detroit News.Follow Rayno on Twitter @AmeliaRayno
Ahmad Gilbert became the second recruit this week to give Minnesota the nod when he committed to coach Richard Pitino during his official visit on Thursday.
Gilbert, who originally committed to George Mason, but who reopened his recruitment after coach Paul Hewitt was fired recently, is a lefty three-star wing from Philadelphia with a knack for shooting the three ball using his length and athleticism on the defensive end.
After the Gophers traveled to Pennsylvania for a home visit at the beginning of the week, Gilbert journeyed to Minneapolis and quickly made his decision. I caught up with his four-year coach at Constitution High School, Robert Moore, about Gilbert's development, strengths, weaknesses and his attraction to Minnesota.
Did you see Ahmad pulling the trigger this week?
I could kind of tell on Monday from the look on the kid's face that he was excited and leaning towards [Minnesota]. I left the home visit on Monday feeling like it would be done by the end of the week. The Penn State coach [Patrick Chambers] called and wanted to set up a visit. I told him basically if [Gilbert] comes back from Minnesota uncommitted, then we’ll bring him up. But in my mind, I didn’t expect him to come back uncommitted.
I was just impressed by coach Pitino and [assistant] coach [Kimani] Young, just their sincerity and what they brought to the table, their professionalism and everything else associated with how they’ve recruited Ahmad. I just felt like it was going to be a good fit.
How did Minnesota's commitment compare with that of other programs, and what was Ahmad attracted to?
They really wanted Ahmad. They’d seen the opportunity to see him over a couple of years. As soon as the opportunity came about once Coach Hewitt got fired at Mason, coach Kimani was at several games. It’s not like Minnesota is THAT far but it’s not like he’s driving up the block either. We had seen him consistently at a lot of our playoff games. We’d look up and there’s Kimani. It was just a gut feeling for me, really with Kimani and with coach Pitino.
They brought us a lot of renderings of what they’re doing [with transforming Bierman Athletic Building]. I’ve never been to Minnesota but just the pictures of the campus and the way everything is set up really really looked amazing to me. The kid was there in April and not in January so that definitely made a big difference. I imagine it’s not the best of times in January. The kid is very interested in studying business, Minnesota has a great business school [Carlson]. I think that things started to click.
The small forward spot was really the biggest wildcard for Minnesota. Do you think that play into Ahmad's decision as well?
One of the things about the George Mason roster is there were seven or eight guys who were small forward type of guys. And when you look at Minnesota, there are none -- there is nobody. You have a kid who is a 4 [power forward] playing the 3 [small forward] or a kid who is a 2 [shooting guard] playing the 3. And even with the kids that have committed so far this year, there is still that gaping hole.
But all three of my seniors that just got Division I scholarships, I didn’t play any of them their freshmen year [because they had talented guys ahead of them]. So they know what it's like. They're going to come in and say if I'm not the man right away, this is the same process I'm going to go through again to be better. I told coach Pitino and Kimani that him being able to play right away is great, but the only thing we care about is is he going to be better in four years, is he going to reach his potential.
How much of his identity is as a shooter?
He’s 6-7 and he can really shoot the ball. He shot 6-for-12 from beyond the arc in our state championship game. And none of them were like high school threes. He pulls up, he’s shooting NBA threes in high school. Down the stretch, our last two games – our semifinal game he didn’t make a shot. He was 11-for-12 or 12-for-13 from the floor and the one shot he missed was a dunk and he was fouled on it. He went to the foul line and hit both foul shots.
I’ve coached a lot of kids and there are not a lot of kids that have come along that can shoot the ball like him. He’s got an up-and-down game like Pitino likes to play, and as long as he gets some open looks. The reality is he's got to get a little bit stronger in order to defend, and he’s got to work on being able to create his own shot at this level. But it’s going to come because he has all the tools, all the resources.
You played him mostly at power forward, right?
It's the nature of college basketball. I had a 6-6 guy in the middle, and I played three guards and Ahmad...He wasn’t the kind of four man that is going to take the ball in the post and pound it down. No, he'll take the ball, he'll spin away. He’s got a beautiful fadeaway jumpshot. He would do those types of things out of the post… He's really good at finding seams in the zone where he can just turn and get his shot off really quick and he just makes it at a really high rate. I think he’s a three. That’s his natural position.
Ahmad originally committed to George Mason last summer, quite early in his recruitment. Then coach Paul Hewitt was fired this March. How did he take that turnover?
It was bad. Imagine being so committed. He committed maybe too early for my liking but ultimately I tell a kid if you’re comfortable, I’ll support you. Ultimately, once I met [the coaches at George Mason], I was comfortable. I knew he was going at a lower level than he could have …I knew he was cutting himself short a little bit by not seeing some other schools. It worked out the way it worked out, unfortunately for the coaching staff there, but now I think Ahmad gets the chance to really prove himself.
You mentioned getting stronger and learning how to better create his own shot -- what other things are critical for him to work on this summer in your opinion?
He needs to work on a lot, but who doesn’t need to work on a lot at 18 years old? ...The strength and conditioning coach for the basketball program, that’s got to be Ahmad’s best friend. He’s a typical high school kid – I’m sure he eats more McDonald’s than he should and he’s never touched a weight. I joked with coach Pitino that we he does his preseason physical they need to check him for a tape worm because he eats all the time but he hasn’t put on a lot of weight. So I’m thinking once he starts eating and he’s meeting with the strength and conditioning people, that he’s getting there. Once you see him, he’s long and his frame is amazing. He can be really really dangerous once he puts on 20-25 pounds of muscle and once he reaches his potential.
Do you think he's versatile enough offensively to contribute right away at the next level, or would you like to see him grow his scoring potential outside of the long-range jumper?
He definitely needs to improve his ability to take the ball to the hole and find different ways to find his shot, get a little better at coming off of screens and setting screens. I told coach, he can be really good at pick-and-pop. He sets a good screen and he can pop out and really hit the shot. But that’s why they get paid the big bucks. I only make like $6,000 as a high school coach but they get paid the big bucks to take him from where he is now and make him into a man and a Big Ten college basketball player.
After a quiet start to the late signing period, Minnesota has gotten commitments from two recruits in a span of three days.
Ahmad Gilbert is the latest, committing to the Gophers on his official visit on Thursday, his high school coach, Robert Moore (Constitution High School), confirmed to the Star Tribune.
Evan Daniels of Scout.com was the first to report the news.
Gilbert is a 6-6 left-handed wing out of Philadelphia and chose the Gophers over offers from Pittsburgh, Wichita State and others. The versatile player can rebound, shoot and defend a couple of different positions, but will be valuable right away as another option at small forward – perhaps the Gophers’ biggest hole in next year’s lineup and -- give Minnesota more size in that role.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino and assistant Kimani Young had visited Gilbert at home after an open gym at Constitution on Monday, and Moore said he sensed that a commitment was near.
"I could kind of tell on Monday from the look on the kid's face that he was excited and leaning towards [Minnesota]," Moore said. "I left the home visit feeling like it would be done by the end of the week.
"I was just impressed by coach Pitino and coach Young, just their sincerity and what they brought to the table, their professionalism and everything else associated with how they’ve recruited Ahmad. I just felt like it was going to be a good fit."
Earlier in the day, Gilbert had tweeted that he would make his decision on May. 21 -- still on the Dinkytown campus, he clearly changed his mind.
Gilbert was originally committed to George Mason, but reopened his recruitment after coach Paul Hewitt was fired in March.
Gilbert gave Gophers coach Richard Pitino the nod two days after Illinois State transfer and Edina native Reggie Lynch committed to Minnesota. The Gophers now have a six-man 2015 class coming in this fall, and they still have another scholarship to play with.
Reggie Lynch signed his national letter of intent to play at the University of Minnesota yesterday, effectively bringing the Illinois State transfer back to his home state.
I caught up with him briefly.
How tough of a decision was it to transfer, and why did you decide to come to Minnesota?
The decision was absolutely nerve-wracking and took me a month’s worth of option-weighing, family conversation and prayer. But the ultimate deciding factors were where I would be happiest, being right next to home and the fulfillment of a dream that I am pursuing and have pursued, to be one of the U’s great players. The family at ISU, the friends I made, the coaches and players were all people that were the main thing that made it hardest to leave, and I will always cherish the memories and fun we had.
You'll have to redshirt this year after putting up a strong season last year with the Redbirds. How is that going to be for you?
No one is ever too excited about sitting out a year from playing… but it will be a great opportunity to take advantage of school-wise and workout-wise.
You had the nation's best shot-blocking percentage among all Division I players last year. Did you surprise yourself with how efficient you were able to be defensively at the rim?
I’ve always been a great shot-blocker. I wasn’t actually aware that I had the best percentage this year but it’s always been something I bring to the table, and I hope I can do so here [at the University of Minnesota] as well.
One day after committing to the University of Minnesota, Illinois State transfer Reggie Lynch made it official, signing his national letter of intent to play for the Gophers and coach Richard Pitino.
"We are very excited about the addition of Reggie Lynch," Pitino said in a statement on Wednesday. "He was one of the best players on a very good team in a proven conference. We expect him to make an immediate impact. Most importantly, Reggie has grown up dreaming of being a Gopher. He will wear Maroon and Gold with pride."
Lynch, who earned All-Missouri Valley Conference second team, All-defensive team and All- MVC tournament team honors last year, will have to sit out the 2015-16 season per NCAA transfer rules. He'll then have two years of eligibility remaining at Minnesota.
The Gophers have two remaining scholarships for the 2015 class.
With a very young and undersized roster on the horizon, the Minnesota men's basketball staff is understandably looking at experience and size as two major directives for the two scholarships that remain in the Gophers' bank after Reggie Lynch's commitment on Tuesday.
Junior College forward and Bloomington native Cullen Russo fills both of those boxes, and could be a welcomed addition in the next few weeks. As a sophomore, the 6-9 New Mexico Junior College player averaged 11.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 51.4 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three-point range (41.9 percent in conference play).
Russo is visiting Fresno State today before traveling to Minnesota this weekend. A third visit -- to Wichita State -- was rescheduled to May 2 after weather-related issues forced him to miss his last appointment. The Gophers -- assistant coach Ben Johnson in particular -- have been hard after Russo this spring.
I chatted with New Mexico JUCO coach James Miller to learn a little more about Russo. Some of our conversation:
How have you seen Cullen change since he first came to New Mexico Junior College a year ago? (Cullen played for one year at Southern Idaho before he transferred following a coaching change.)
Oh yeah, he's grown on and off the floor since he's been here. Academically, he's done a much better job this year. He's been right at 3.0 through the course of a year and should end the year there as long as he finishes these last two weeks strong. On the floor, he was able to shoot the ball better from the perimeter ... he played really well for us the last 19, 20 games. The last 20 games, he was a really good player for us -- from a couple of weeks before the Christmas break until the very end.
Which schools are pursuing him the hardest right now?
In the last couple weeks, I wouldn't say it's narrowed because it's not a closed recruitement by any means, but Minnesota has been very persistent. Minnesota, Wichita State and Fresno State, those are kind of the three that are sticking out right now. There is still a host of other schools that are contacting him and calling him and trying to schedule other visits. But as of today, those are the three -- I wouldn't say its fully narrowed down, but those are the ones he's really kind of focused on. He's not leaning any way [between those three] right now. He's just open-minded to the whole process and looking to see what each school has. He wants to figure out where is the best basketball fit and obviously the best fit academically and where he feels comfortable.
Would he take any other official visits?
Those are the three he's set up. With the time of year it is, to do more than three would be kind of difficult. So I think it's one of those deals where if he likes one of those three, I think he'll be comfortable pulling the trigger, but if not, he has two more to use if he so chooses.
Does the fact that Minnesota is his home state and the Gophers are his home state team play into his decision at all?
I think it does, obviously because he's very familiar with the lay of the land. It's not one of those deals where 'Hey, I need to go home' like some kids are, but I don't think it hurts either. Growing up in that environment, he's pretty familiar with what the expectations are for Minnesota basketball. Obviously, it's a different team that the one he grew up watching, but obviously he understands what Minnesota has to offer.
What is important to him in making his decision?
I think he wants to go somewhere where he's going to play and have the best chance to play a significant role. Whichever team it is, whichever school it is. Obviously he wants a structured environment and to be around people that will care about him on a consistent basis and help him through good and bad times like any kids. He doesn't want anything extravagent or different than most young men do. I think he has a pretty good idea that these three schools will probably be good in those areas.
Have you mostly played him at small forward or power forward this past year?
He's 6-8, 6-9, he could play either one to be honest with you -- he played the three and four [spots] in high school. For us, the four plays on the perimeter for the most part and offensively you can create so many mismatches at that position. If you have a bigger floor guy at that position, he can take him on the perimeter and drive by him or shoot the three. If you have a smaller guy, he can post him up, because he's 220 pounds, he's not like skinny.
How versatile would you say he is? He also averaged almost two steals per game this year, and as you pointed out earlier, has pretty good range.
Extremely. He can shoot the three, he can guard multiple positions. He can dribble the ball, he can pass the ball, he can shoot it. He's extremely versatile. If they need him to play the small forward or the four, he can do either one. He has that ability to where you can use him to create mismatches offensively and defensively he can guard multiple positions.
Do you see him fitting into Richard Pitino ball from what you're seen?
He's 6-8, 6-9, he can run and jump, he's got good length. He moves well. So if he's in a situation where you're pressing, he'd be great in that. If they're switching ball screens and playing zone, he's great in that. Picking and popping, coming off ball screens, he can do that as well. He's really versatile, so he could play in a lot of situations, but in order to go up and down and use his athleticism and his length and his ability to move at the three and the four, I think that [style] would fit him pretty good with the way they play.
Do you think he's big enough and physical enough to play the power forward effectively at the next level, not just in pick-and-pop situations, but banging around with opponents in the paint, that sort of game?
He'll get in there and bang. He's not one of those guys that can only floats. He'll go in there and compete. If he gets to the next level where they have better meals and protein shakes and better strength and conditioning, he really has the type of frame where he can add 10 or 15 pounds easily. So realistically come October or November of next year after a summer in the weight room and better meals, I would believe that he could be pushing 230. But he fights. He's not scared to go in there and battle.
What's the biggest thing he needs to work on in his game this summer in your opinion?
Just being consistent in his game, just staying in the gym, getting stronger. You can never be a good enough shooter.
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