Top recruit Tyus Jones last week whittled down a massive list of schools pursuing him to eight colleges that remain in the game. The list, unveiled on Twitter, read like a conversation about the most prominent programs in basketball: Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, Michigan State, Ohio State, Baylor ...
It's hard to say whether Jones, the Apple Valley point guard ranked by some recruiting services as the nation's top player in the Class of 2014, is serious about the Gophers or whether he is soothing local egos before he eventually picks a different school.
"They're one of the first schools that started recruiting me, and I like what they're doing over there," Jones said last week. "So that's why they're still one of my final schools I'm looking at."
For Tubby Smith -- a coach seeking the players to help the Gophers leap into college basketball's elite and one who calls recruiting "the lifeblood of a program" -- getting Jones would equal winning the lottery.
In 2007, Minnesota hired Smith -- who won a national title at Kentucky in 1998 -- to help turn the program around. To an extent, that has happened. The Gophers have twice made the NCAA tournament under Smith after going only once in the eight years before he arrived. And this year's team is perhaps the most promising one of his tenure.
But while Smith has landed some nice players, his legacy at the U also has been defined by transfers, disappointments and a failure to recruit (or keep) enough game-changing players such as Jones. National signing day is Wednesday, and the Gophers are expected to add 6-5 wing Alvin Ellis and 6-8 forward Alex Foster, both from Chicago. Neither is listed among Rivals.com's top 150 recruits nationally.
"When we talk about recruiting, I look back on what could have been, what should have been and you say, 'Well, have we done a good job?'" Smith said. "I think we've done some good things, but ... the retention is important as anything, as important as development. You've got to have men. You've got to have them available to you."
Therein lies his defining challenge and opportunity. With six highly regarded recruits in the classes of 2014 and 2015 playing in Minnesota or Wisconsin, the Gophers have a convenient opportunity to author transformation -- or compound the struggles with the biggest misses yet.
The first class to sign after Smith's hiring included Ralph Sampson III and Devoe Joseph, both ranked in Rivals.com's top 100. Minnesota's recruiting class of 2009 -- Rodney Williams, Trevor Mbakwe (who transferred from Miami Dade CC), Justin Cobbs and Royce White -- was ranked No. 24 in the country.
"Coming into it, we were all excited," said Williams, ranked by Rivals as the No. 100 recruit in 2009. "We thought we had a really good future. But it didn't work out."
And after that, nabbing top players didn't happen as easily. While rankings aren't perfect, they are a good barometer of perceived talent. From 2010 to 2013, the recruiting classes haven't breached the top 30, and the Gophers haven't grabbed any players in the Rivals.com top 100 (though Mo Walker, Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman were all in the top 125).
As such, recruiting success in the upcoming years is critical to the program. In addition to Jones -- ESPN's No. 1 overall recruit for 2014 -- Minnesota is also home to Cooper 6-4 guard Rashad Vaughn (Rivals No. 12) and DeLaSalle 6-7 forward Reid Travis (Rivals No. 41), who graduate in the same year. DeLaSalle guard Jarvis Johnson, Grand Rapids center Alex Illikainen and Rice Lake (Wis.) center Henry Ellenson, the brother of Gophers freshman Wally Ellenson, have all made a major splash as 2015 recruits.
Getting those recruits, however, will mean turning the tide. Recruiting analysts say top players often don't view Minnesota as a top program despite its Big Ten status and Smith's past accomplishments.
"Minnesota isn't really on the radar of four and five-star recruits," said Jeff Borzello of CBSSports.com. "The reputation of their assistants, and even Tubby [is] they're not really ace recruiters."
Jones said he has a good relationship with Smith and his staff. Ryan James of Rivals.com points out that Gophers assistant Vince Taylor has built some solid relationships with players, but that overall the efforts have been inconsistent.
"Too often I hear people say, 'I haven't heard as much from Minnesota as I used to,'" James said. "As a staff, they definitely need to put more time into continuing to get after kids."
Smith assessed overall recruiting during his tenure thusly: "I think we've done a good job. We haven't done a super job -- we've missed out on some players."
When kids do visit the University of Minnesota, they see a big-time campus and a pair of vibrant cities. The facilities, on the other hand, don't make the cut. Minnesota and Northwestern are the only Big Ten programs without a basketball practice facility. At a school already fighting a cold-weather perception, that can be a deal-breaker.
"There's no question, it's an arms race," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "Facilities are impressionable."
Smith has campaigned for a practice facility, and new AD Norwood Teague says it is a priority. For now, though, the Gophers practice and play at Williams Arena.
The Gophers also have contributed to their own recruiting problems. Before the season started, Saul Smith -- an assistant coach and Tubby's son -- was arrested for drunken driving.
"I already know coaches are using that [against Minnesota]," James said, "which is unfortunate. But that's the game of recruiting."
And the Gophers authored a bit of an embarrassment when, after getting a verbal commitment from junior college big man Daniel Edozie in September, they backed out a couple of weeks later after watching him play at a tournament in Texas.
"The assistant coach fell in love with him and the head coach didn't," said Edozie's AAU coach, Donley Minor. "And at the last second, the head coach decided he didn't want to give him a scholarship."
A team source said programs typically meet as a staff before extending an offer to avoid such confusion.
Winning, however, can help overcome recruiting obstacles. A strong showing by the Gophers this season could influence some of the best of the Class of 2014 and 2015 to choose Minnesota.
James said he thinks the Gophers have made the best inroads with Vaughn, who has become close to Taylor. Even then, though, convincing Vaughn and his peers to stay home isn't an easy task.
"It's a different society," said Nebraska coach Tim Miles of the so-called home-state advantage. "These guys all grew up with the Internet, with e-mail and text and all those things. ... The recruiting game, I don't believe, is the same. All the same, we're expected to keep our local talent local."
Whether the Gophers can do that will have a major impact on Smith's recruiting legacy and the program's future.