Gophers basketball makes inroads in recruiting, but has little to show

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 27, 2013 - 12:36 AM

Richard Pitino and his new staff have drawn interest from top Class of 2014 players, but no one’s coming yet.

 

The evidence of fan excitement over the possibility of a men’s basketball recruiting resurgence at Minnesota has been present on Twitter all summer. New coach Richard Pitino and his staff, despite coming onto the scene late, had several prime national recruits seriously considering the Gophers.

But the heat of the summer has faded into fall. The 2013-14 season is already here — teams can begin practice Friday, about two weeks earlier than usual because of a rule change — but questions about the Gophers’ future are just as important as those about the present.

The Gophers still have no commitments for the Class of 2014, with many recruits who had pegged Minnesota as one of their favorites ultimately ending up elsewhere. A prime example came Thursday, when point guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn, one of the Gophers’ top targets, announced he will go to Michigan State. His final four included the Gophers, Indiana and Oklahoma.

Though there are promising candidates still considering the Gophers, including some who will be making their decisions in the coming days, an empty class so far has some fans concerned.

Are those concerns shortsighted? After all, for the new Gophers staff — charged with revamping a program that won an NCAA tournament game last season but that failed to consistently recruit top national talent under former coach Tubby Smith — even the first recruiting judgment day is far down the road.

“Pressure is a privilege — you want to have pressure,” assistant coach Dan McHale said of the perception. “It’s always good having a passionate fan base that cares and wants us to get a great class. But we don’t panic. We’re out there, going from coast to coast, trying to find the right fit for how we want to build this. This first class is so important to us for getting the types of kids that we want. There are going to be no quick fixes.”

This year and beyond

After Smith was fired, the Gophers’ two Class of 2013 recruits — Alex Foster and Alvin Ellis — decommitted. Joe Coleman transferred, while the graduation of Trevor Mbakwe, Julian Welch, Andre Ingram and Rodney Williams left Pitino scrambling to used five available scholarships this season. The Gophers have filled four, bringing in junior college transfer guard Deandre Mathieu, freshman guard Daquein McNeil, Drake transfer forward Joey King and Florida International transfer guard Malik Smith. Smith received a waiver to be immediately eligible, while the Gophers are still waiting for the NCAA to rule on King.

The Gophers saved one scholarship for the 2014 class — the first real class and first real test for Pitino and his staff, who are also making inroads with players from the Class of 2015 and beyond.

“I will say I noticed Minnesota more this summer than in previous summers,” CBSSports.com recruiting analyst Jeff Borzello said. “There was more excitement and more buzz about Minnesota on the recruiting trail this summer and with in-home visits and stuff like that.”

The Pitino name is a draw, Borzello said, and his diverse staff has demonstrated its worth, enticing recruits across the country rather than only locally.

But the Gophers have eventually endured rejection from several high-profile recruits in addition to Nairn. Among the slights are point guards Ja’Quan Newton, Alex Robinson and Kaleb Joseph, Lakeville North guard J.P. Macura, five-star prospect Isaiah Whitehead and wings Wade Baldwin, Terry Larrier and Paul White. All of them either committed elsewhere or crossed the Gophers off their list.

The long view

The Gophers staff, though, isn’t looking at the slate as a series of failures, but rather part of the experience of finding the right players. Making new relationships and building on previous ones with AAU coaches and high schools along the way is valuable, McHale said, and national talk only helps out the long-term vision.

“In our minds, if it’s not a good fit on either side, it’s not a miss,” McHale said of recruits in general. “We just move on until we find the right players.”

With the early signing period starting in mid-November, the Gophers are still in the running with Wisconsin prep point guard Riley LaChance, as well as Seattle power forward Josh Martin, Chicago wing Josh Cunningham, Alabama big man Abdoulaye Gueye and Florida shooting guard Adonys Henriquez, among others. The Gophers remain on the finalist lists of the local “Big Three” — Apple Valley point guard Tyus Jones, former Cooper guard Rashad Vaughn and DeLaSalle forward Reid Travis — even if the prospect of keeping any of them in-state is questionable.

Many big-time programs still do not have any recruits committed for 2014, providing evidence that a lack of commitments in late September compels no reason for panic. The same conundrum at the end of November would prove to be a different story.

“They’re getting kids on campus. That’s a huge step — in-home visits, things like that. Those are signs of making progress with recruits,” Borzello said. “But they have to close the deal at some point.”

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