This year’s USA Today college basketball preview magazine grades the individual Big Ten incoming classes according to how strong the new additions are.
The Gophers are the only team in the conference that receive an ‘F.’
From a distance, it’s easy to see why this Gophers class seems so weak. Deandre Mathieu is a tiny guard that has only JUCO experience. Malik Smith is a transfer from Florida International, a team nestled in the Sun Belt conference before this season (and now sits at the bottom of Conference USA). Daquein McNeil, the only true freshman, is given just a two-star ranking by ESPN. No one knows (still) whether Drake transfer Joey King will be able to play right away, or will have to sit out a year if the NCAA denies his waiver request.
Does the Minnesota incoming class deserve an F? Under the USA Today grading system, no other team received worse than a D (Penn State received a D+ and Michigan State received a D).
Let’s take a look at other newcomers around the conference for comparison:
Illinois – It’s a big class and there is plenty to watch, even if there aren’t necessarily candidates to step up and replace Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson right away. Jon Ekey (a transfer from Illinois State) is eligible right away, and could be a force in the frontcourt. Austin Colbert, a 6-9 four-star and Maverick Morgan, a 6-10 three-star according to Rivals, add more size. Malcolm Hill (four-star), Kendrick Nunn (four-star) and Jaylon Tate (three-star) are all interesting guards. There’s a good mix of talent and roles here.
Indiana – For the Big Ten team that lost the most, a stellar incoming class really helps keeps things optimistic in Bloomington. Noah Vonleh is a McDonald’s All-American, Luke Fischer should make loss of Cody Zeller less painful, talented wings Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson will help fill Victor Oladipo’s shoes and Evan Gordan, a transfer from Arizona State is proven at a high level. It’s enough to keep the Hoosiers very interesting/intimidating in 2013-14.
Iowa – The Hawkeyes bring in Peter Jok, a three-star and the top recruit in state, making their new class one of the smallest – but Jarrod Uthoff, a four-star transfer from Wisconsin who sat out last two years (most recently as transfer to Iowa) is also waiting in the wings.
Michigan – Five-star guard Zak Irvin, Indiana’s Mr. Basketball for last year and Derrick Walton (a four-star guard from Michigan) will try to take over for Trey Burke; along with four-star power forward Mark Donnal, it makes for a very strong class.
Michigan State – This class should look pretty familiar to the Gophers. There’s Chicago wing Alvin Ellis – remember him?—who originally committed to the Gophers before de-committing after Richard Pitino was hired. And power forward Gavin Schilling, who the Gophers were hard after with Tubby Smith at the helm. Don’t get too up-in-arms about the losses though; both are three-stars, and the class is nothing to rave about. But then again, this year, it doesn’t seem like the Spartans will need it.
Nebraska – Tai Webster, a true freshman point guard from New Zealand has drawn some interest, and Terran Petteway, a wing transfer from Texas Tech (who sat out last year), could have an impact. Walter Pitchford, a Florida transfer, is also now eligible. The Huskers don’t have a lot of success to fall from, so who knows, maybe the new mix could be an improvement.
Northwestern – Just one addition here -- Nate Taphorn, a 6-7 shooter, molded in the Northwestern way. Of course, the alteration from a year ago that is getting the most attention is Drew Crawford, who is back from a shoulder injury.
Ohio State – Marc Loving was Ohio’s Mr. Basketball; Kameron Williams is a fellow four-star. Both have some adapting to do, but the skill is obvious.
Penn State – It will be fun to watch what Graham Woodward (an Edina kid) can do at point guard in Happy Valley. Otherwise, the class is fairly underwhelming.
Purdue – Bryson Scott, a combo guard, was in the running for Indiana’s Mr. Basketball and intrigues from the start. Kendall Stephens and Basil Smotherman (what a name), both four-stars, should contribute. This class could help the Boilermakers take the next step this year.
Wisconsin – Nigel Hayes, a 6-7 forward Minnesota was after under Tubby, could have really helped the size-less Gophers this season. Vitto Brown could find a frontcourt role off the bat in Madison as well. Bronson Koenig has some potential at point. The class isn’t amazing, but there is intrigue.
Some of these classes are quite impressive (see Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Purdue); others are not (Penn State, Northwestern, Michigan State). Is the Gophers’ class really the worst? An F, after all, is quite a statement.
I think part of the analysis has to do with need. Michigan State, for example, while not bringing in any blow-you-away recruits, is in a position to be the preseason national No. 1. Even Penn State and Northwestern didn’t have the same glaring position holes as the Gophers heading into the summer. Part of the concern with Minnesota’s pickings, both nationally and locally, is that they don’t really address the problem. After losing both Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams (not to mention Andre Ingram, to round out the bulk of the frontcourt from last season), the Gophers replace their rebounders and size with guards, guards, guards (and small ones at that).
Now, this isn’t necessarily sloppy oversight; there are reasons aplenty:
1. Richard Pitino inherited a bare cupboard after Alvin Ellis and Alex Foster (a 6-8 forward) decommitted (which is how my sources say it happened, versus Foster being shooed off, as some have speculated). April is very, very late to begin recruiting for the following fall.
2. The staff genuinely believed they had a good shot at getting Rakeem Buckles, a 6-7 forward who followed Pitino from Louisville to Florida International. The NCAA didn’t agree.
3. It seemed like a strong bet for Drake transfer Joey King, a 6-7 power forward, to get a waiver to play immediately. The NCAA still hasn’t weighed in on that.
The Gophers also have Charles Buggs available, who redshirted last year. The 6-7 power forward has bulked up substantially over the off-season, and certainly has promise. Still, he's very raw, and there's just one of him.
So no, the Gophers incoming class has not really dealt with their brazen needs. As for the players that did sign with Minnesota, it's way too early to say.
One thing I believe is true about Richard Pitino is that he is a pretty sound judge of talent. He watched and learned for years under his father, and under Billy Donovan, figuring out that the ability to select the right personnel is a huge part of what makes coaches successful. Pitino said from the start that he wouldn’t sign players just to fill spots. He has seen something in these guys – and the optimistic side says that he found under-the-radar recruits, given his circumstances, and those plays just might, in turn, over-achieve.
Maybe he has found the right under-the-radar mix. Maybe the knock on this class is legitimate. Either way, this is the kind of class that you really have to see in action to evaluate.
As a whole, the class is seen as disappointing not so much because of the players in it, but because of the players that aren't. It doesn’t fill the greatest need – size. Some of that disappointment could be offset by pleasant surprises from the guards (and King if he is available).
Given the lack of depth up front, they should have plenty of opportunities to show just how dynamic they can be.