When Alvin Ellis and Alex Foster inked their Gophers commitments in the early signing period, and targeted prep star Gavin Schilling chose Michigan State last month, the late signing period looked as if it would be somewhat quiet for Minnesota.
But with new coach Richard Pitino being hired and Ellis and Foster each de-committing — leaving the Gophers with four available scholarships and no incoming recruits for 2013 — Wednesday’s first day of late signing instead likely will start a fast-and-furious endeavor to fill out next season’s roster.
Pitino was forced into the same scramble last year when he was hired as head coach at Florida International in mid-April. Six players subsequently left, leaving him with even more holes. That hasn’t happened at Minnesota, but Pitino said Monday he is still hoping to add players who fit his up-tempo style.
“That was why we won last year at FIU,” said Pitino, who led the Golden Panthers to an 18-14 record. “We brought in guys who fit the style, and I think the style took over. We have to do the same here in a couple weeks.”
That said, he’s not just looking for warm bodies.
“We have some nice pieces still here. Being able to work the guys out has helped. I can get a feel for what I want and what I think we need,” he said. “I don’t want to take the wrong guy. I don’t want to just fill a roster [spot]. Scholarships, they’re like gold.”
Per NCAA rules, Pitino cannot comment on specific recruits. Making matters a little more complicated is that Monday to Thursday this week is a “dead” period for recruiting. Coaches can contact players on the phone, but they cannot see them in person. Here are a few players Minnesota could target:
• Point guard Shane Rector de-committed from Rutgers and is on the Gophers’ radar. In addition, 6-3 combo guard Daquein McNeil, a three-star recruit Pitino landed at FIU, reportedly is seeking a release from his national letter of intent and could be a possibility here.
• Junior college forward Cameron Forte said Pitino has carried over his offer to him from FIU to Minnesota. The 6-6 Forte averaged 23 points and eight rebounds as a sophomore at Howard College (Big Spring, Texas).
• Ellis has received interest from multiple schools since reopening his recruitment, and while there is no current knowledge that the Gophers are getting reinvolved, the 6-4 shooting guard still could be an option.
• FIU power forward Rakeem Buckles reportedly has expressed interest in transferring to the Gophers, and could make a lot of sense considering Trevor Mbakwe, Rodney Williams and Andre Ingram are all exiting. It’s unclear whether Buckles, who transferred from Louisville to FIU when Pitino was hired, would be eligible right away.
Buckles has only one year of eligibility left, so if he could play immediately it would free up another scholarship for the deep 2014 class, which includes local top-50 players Tyus Jones, Rashad Vaughn and Reid Travis. If Pitino could land Buckles and another player or two, he could stockpile scholarships for 2014 while addressing current areas of concern.
“We certainly have immediate needs now that we need to try to address,” Pitino said.
• Ben Johnson, the ex-Gopher and DeLaSalle standout, was officially announced Tuesday as a member of Pitino’s coaching staff. Johnson was an assistant at Nebraska last season, where he worked with Huskers guards and was the recruiting coordinator. “In addition to being a proud Minnesota alum, he brings the work ethic I am looking for and a knowledge of the university, the Midwest and the Big Ten Conference,” Pitino said in a news release.
• Mike Balado was hired last week as Pitino’s director of basketball operations at Minnesota, but his tenure here could be short-lived. FIU just hired former Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans as its new head coach, and Balado — an assistant at FIU under Pitino last season — is in the mix for a higher-ranking job on Evans’ staff.
Staff writer Michael Rand contributed to this report.