An hour before the D1 Minnesota AAU team practiced last week, Zeke Nnaji strolled into Eden Prairie High School Activities Center with some news about a scholarship offer from a big-time program.
Nnaji is not the bragging type. So the 6-10 Hopkins junior, one of the fastest-rising boys’ basketball prospects in the country, kept it quiet. That is until someone asked about his new suitors.
“Yeah, UCLA offered today,” he said humbly. “I didn’t have any offers this time last year.”
This time last year, the Gophers had offered only one Minnesota high school player in both the 2019 and ’20 classes. Obvious choices, too: Rochester John Marshall’s Matthew Hurt and Minnehaha Academy’s Jalen Suggs, five-star players ranked in the top five in their classes.
But Richard Pitino has widened his recruiting lens beyond those two. The Gophers coach, two years removed from going 0-for-7 on Minnesotans, has stepped up his pursuit of in-state talent, recruiting players earlier and more aggressively. Eight Gophers offers now are out to Minnesota high school sophomores and juniors — four in each class.
“When you’re the only Division I basketball program [in the state], it’s going to be very important to those kids,” Pitino said this week. “Recruiting the state will always be important to us.”
Six D1 Minnesota AAU players have offers from the Gophers: Hurt, Nnaji, Tyrell Terry, Tyler Wahl, Dawson Garcia and Ben Carlson.
Gophers fans can get a closer look at those prospects when D1 Minnesota opens play in the Battle at the Lakes on Saturday morning at Wayzata High School.
“[A Minnesota offer] means everything because you grow up watching the Gophers on TV,” said Nnaji, who was offered by Pitino in November. “You aspire to be them. When you finally get the offer, it’s like ‘wow,’ I’m starting to get there. It was really humbling knowing that. It’s still motivation to work harder to prove I deserve it.”
Hurt, Nnaji, Terry and Wahl all play for D1 Minnesota’s 17-and-under team, arguably one of the top five teams in the Adidas gantlet league’s top level. Garcia and Dawson are teammates on the 16s squad.
After not signing any of the top seven Minnesotans in the 2017 class, Pitino landed three of the four Minnesotans he offered in 2018. They all played for Howard Pulley’s AAU team last year. Apple Valley’s Tre Jones got away, following older brother Tyus to Duke, but Cretin-Derham Hall’s Daniel Oturu, DeLaSalle’s Gabe Kalscheur and Orono’s Jarvis Omersa will fill some Williams Arena seats next season. Five scholarship Gophers will be from Minnesota next season, including juniors Amir Coffey and Michael Hurt.
“They do a great job and value in-state talent,” Nnaji said of the Gophers staff. “It definitely shows with the three recruits they got in Daniel, Jarvis and Gabe. The Gophers are looking to bounce back and have a strong season. I know they started off strong before injuries started to wear them down. But I think they’re going to be good this year.”
Matthew Hurt, Michael’s younger brother, is the headliner on D1 Minnesota. The 6-9 forward has offers from Kansas, Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky. The massive attention on the USA Under-18 national team candidate brought some eyes toward Nnaji, Terry and Wahl at the first two Adidas events in Atlanta and Indianapolis last month.
“We have great players in this program,” Hurt said. “I’m not surprised they’re offering all these guys in our program. They have talent and great character off the court. I’m happy for them.”
After barely playing with Pulley last season, Nnaji switched AAU teams and was named one of the biggest surprises on the Adidas circuit this spring. His size, athleticism and versatility led to the UCLA offer and caught the attention of Arizona and Kansas.
Terry, a 6-3 point guard from DeLaSalle, runs the offense, shoots well from deep and gets teammates quality shots. He received offers from Iowa and Stanford before the Gophers last month.
“It’s really cool to see the fan support on Twitter and at school,” Terry said. “I’m just grateful they recruited me in the first place and that Coach Pitino believed in me.”
Sophomore big men Garcia from Prior Lake, Carlson from East Ridge and Dain Dainja from Park Center all announced offers from the Gophers on Twitter on the same day last week.
“It meant everything to know the home school trusted you enough to give you that scholarship offer,” said Garcia, a 6-10 forward. “It shows they do a good job of recruiting locally and trying to keep us in the state.”
Wahl’s only scholarship offers by Power Five schools are from Big Ten rivals Wisconsin and Minnesota, which came one after another in April.
“To have those two back-to-back offers — it’s surreal,” Wahl said.
The Badgers have won that recruiting border battle in recent years, but the 6-7 Lakeville North junior isn’t saying they are a favorite. Meanwhile, Pitino is working hard to even that score.