This is Amelia Rayno's third season on the Gophers men's basketball beat. She learned college basketball in North Carolina (Go Tar Heels!), where fanhood is not an option. In 2010, she joined the Star Tribune after graduating from Boston's Emerson College, which sadly had no exciting D-I college hoops to latch onto. Amelia has also worked on the sports desk at the Boston Globe and interned at the Detroit News.Follow Rayno on Twitter @AmeliaRayno
Nate Grimes has compiled 25 scholarship offers -- Minnesota included -- and a national rating teetering toward the top-100, according to Rivals.
But in the eyes of his AAU coach and mentor, Lamar Bigby, the Las Vegas forward isn't even close to touching his potential.
Bigby has some perspective on the subject. After all, he's watched as many gatekeepers throughout Grimes' basketball past shook their heads no at the prospect. And he looked on last year as the suitors piled up, the 6-foot-7 Grimes flexing his raw basketball ability in just his first full season playing varsity basketball.
"He's a four-year guy that can continue to get better," Bigby said. "You can build your program around a guy like that."
Minnesota, intrigued by Grimes' athleticism and versatility, has made its interest clear. The Gophers offered in May and have stayed close in touch since.
Bigby, meanwhile, sees in the Gophers a near-ideal program for developing a player that is perhaps still underrated. He's listened to coach Richard Pitino talk of the time he sets aside for individual instruction. He's seen the statistical improvements from a handful of the players Pitino inherited after just one year.
"Minnesota is at the top for sure, for sure," Bigby said. "We believe in what coach Pitino is doing and what the staff does as far as the development of kids."
The promise of development is an aspect he considers very important in Grimes' choice.
Bigby met Grimes when the lanky ninth grader first showed up at Cheyenne High School in North Las Vegas. The varsity team wasn't interested in Grimes, who according to Bigby played "very little" basketball in middle school. Neither was JV.
Bigby was coaching the freshman team at the time and an of his assistants happened to be present for one of Grimes' failed tryouts. He reported back: there was a newcomer Bigby needed to see.
When the head coach did, he saw a skinny, 6-foot-5 project, somewhat unsure of himself or how to use his broad shoulders and long arms.
And he saw something else:
"This kid is going to be good," he thought.
That season, Bigby estimates Grimes averaged 13 points a game. After practices, the coach would train him individually. But the next year -- his sophomore season -- after tryouts, the Cheyenne coaches wanted to promote him only to JV.
Grimes ultimately didn't play at all, struggling to stay academically eligible throughout the winter, but he made the most of his summer, where he continued to play for Bigby on his Las Vegas Knicks AAU team. The coach had founded the program two years earlier, the summer before discovering Grimes.
Despite missing a full season of high school basketball, Grimes was spectacular.
By the start of classes, he'd collected 10 scholarships.
After his junior year at Desert Pines -- where Grimes transferred after his sophomore season -- the forward picked up his grades and heaped more offers to his growing stack, with schools such as Oregon State, New Mexico, Boston College, Colorado State and Minnesota hopping on board.
The rising senior is capable of playing several different positions -- from shooting guard to power forward -- and has shown a lot of natural skill in rebounding and defense.
Now, Grimes -- whom Bigby describes as intensely loyal and a "throwback," unfazed by his new popularity -- is close to narrowing his list. Then the pair will consider visits. The coach wouldn't name any favorites except one.
"Minnesota ain't going nowhere," he said. "We really like Minnesota ... they'll be there, they'll be right up there at the very, very top."
At the Minnesota basketball team camp last month, Gophers assistant Dan McHale took a gander around the high schoolers present and nudged new transfer Zach Lofton.
"How many of these high schools do you represent?" he joked.
Lofton, who joined the Minnesota this summer, in fact could claim just one as his alma mater -- Columbia Heights High School, from which he graduated in 2011. But the jest was rooted in a fact: the junior shooting guard has moved around a lot. The St. Paul native attended Saint Bernard's for two years until the school closed, at which point he transferred to Columbia Heights. Lofton then attended Quakerdale Prep in Iowa, before enrolling at San Jacinto College-Central, a junior college. After a year, he left for Illinois State, where he played for one season before being recruited by the Gophers.
"He's been a journeyman," McHale said.
Now, though, the lifelong Gophers fan is at the place he's always wanted to call home.
"He's so appreciative to play here," McHale said. "It's always been his dream."
Minnesota seems pretty happy to have Lofton, too. Head coach Richard Pitino has raved about the guard's NBA-type body, telling crowds of fans that attended Minnesota's Gopher Road Trip stops this summer that he thought Lofton had the highest potential of anyone on the team.
Lofton has to sit out one season due to NCAA transfer rules, but the Gophers have high hopes for his expected maroon-and-gold debut in the fall of 2015. The coaches were drawn to his ability to shoot and get to the rim; his athleticism and his power.
"He is very, very talented, multi-skilled," McHale said. "In our system, he's the type of guy that could be really good and sitting out a year could be beneficial for him."
Last year's stats aren't as kind to Lofton as his current coaches' words. With the Redbirds, the 6-foot-4 guard averaged 11.3 points and three rebounds, but shot just 33.9 percent from the field and 29.2 percent from three-point range.
When McHale saw those numbers, he went through the tape and looked through every shot Lofton had taken last year. He saw the guard release in bad situations and with hands in his face, again and again.
"He took a LOT of challenged shots," McHale said.
Since then, the Gophers have worked with Lofton on his shot selection, which they believe will produce a drastic change in his percentages.
"It's not like he's got anything wrong mechanically, or really anything we need to fix," McHale said. "He's got a beautiful-looking jumper. It's just learning how to play ... he's the type of kid who could really fill it up."
The motive, McHale knows, won't be a problem.
"Every day he puts on the Minnesota practice jersey" McHale said, "It means something to him."
Local 2015 recruit Marshawn Wilson is hoping a summer of focused improvement will land him on the priority lists of Minnesota and other high major programs.
For now, the Gophers are certainly recruiting the Hill-Murray shooting guard, but have yet to extend an offer, and appear to be waiting to see Wilson take the next steps on and off the court.
"At the beginning of his junior year last year, he had quite a bit of contact with them -- as of late there hasn't been as much," said Dick Ghizoni, who coached the Pioneers last year before retiring at the end of the season.
Right now, Wilson's only scholarship offers come from Colorado State, Creighton, Northern Iowa, and most recently, La Salle, but a handful of high-major universities, including Minnesota and Michigan State, have stayed in contact.
Wilson has struggled academically in the past, Ghizoni said -- transferring to Hill-Murray from Tartan High School after his sophomore year with his GPA, "a mess" -- but the 6-foot-1 guard has picked up his study habits and improved his grades in the last semester.
"Like a lot of young kids, they don't realize how important is is until they get a little bit older and time gets a little bit smaller to fix it," Ghizoni said. "He's done a really good job of getting help and seeking help and concentrating on becoming a better student."
On the court, the physical, driving guard, has worked to better his outside shooting ability. Ghizoni saw that improvement capped at the end of last season, when Wilson sank nine three-pointers for a school record in a February game against Henry Sibley.
Wilson, who is playing AAU ball with Wisconsin United, has shown a knack for rebounding and running the floor, but is focusing on finding better balance in his offensive game and staying focused on defense, Ghizoni said.
He hopes the effort will lead to a renewed interest from Minnesota, which Wilson visited a couple of times during his junior year.
"He's made some big strides in the last year or so," Ghizoni said.
At least six times a day, Minnesota basketball strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown will hear his cell phone buzz and see, on the screen, a plate of food next to Carlos Morris' smiling face.
Since Morris, the Gophers' junior college addition to the 2014-15 class, arrived on campus in late May, the team has operated with two major goals in mind for the guard:
Find structure. And bulk up.
The 6-4 Florida native has as good a chance as anyone to seize the vacancy in the starting lineup after Austin Hollins expired his eligibility in the spring. But the Gophers know it will take a summer of dedicated routine and building mass for Morris to compete in the competitive and hearty-bodied Big Ten.
That's why six times a day -- the number of meals Morris is consuming, plus protein shakes -- the new guard will send along picture proof to his trainer, of sandwiches, of Papa Johns pizza at 9 p.m.
"We don't reinvent the wheel by any stretch of the imagination but our biggest thing is we just give guys routine and structure and if they're willing to abide by it, the system works," Gophers assistant Dan McHale said. "He's been a very, very pleasant surprise. You recruit kids, you get to know them, but you don't really know how they're going to be on a day-to-day basis, and he's been great."
According to McHale, Morris -- called 'Squirrel' or sometimes 'Los' by his coaches and teammates -- has thrived in the new environment. The kid who had gone the JUCO route at Chipola College (Fla.) in order to mature and pick up his grades received an 'A' in the first class he took in the May term, McHale said. Along the way, he added 16 pounds to his lanky frame. Each day, he sees his academic tutor for a session, then hits the weight room before getting on the floor to shoot.
"He walks around here, he's got structure -- he's really fitting into a real college environment really well," McHale said. "He's the type of kid that just didn't value waking up every day, eating a full breakfast, having a balance to him. And I think that's the biggest [change for him]."
The assistant coach said backcourt duo Andre Hollins -- Morris' roommate -- and DeAndre Mathieu have quickly bonded with the fellow Southerner, and the three work out together often.
The Gophers were attracted to Morris because of his strong ball-handling skills, unselfish play and ability to attack the rim, especially in transition. One of Morris' biggest goals for the summer is to stretch his mid-range game to include a consistent three-point shot.
"He's a playmaker, he looks to find guys," McHale said. "So it's like having another point forward out there ... He's a motor guy. He's got big shoes to fill with Austin and he's a very different player than Austin but he compliments the way we play."
Next season, DeAndre Mathieu faces a host a new challenges.
In his senior year, the 5-foot-9 Mathieu will be one of the Minnesota's leaders, both on the court and off. His steady presence and occasional dominance through last season suggest he has room in his game to grow and improve, but this time around, scouting reports around the Big Ten will have the point guard's name highlighted.
Now, the Knoxville, Tenn. native is adding fatherhood to that mix.
At 12:23 a.m. on July 3, Mathieu reported via Twitter that his girlfriend had birthed their son, Elijah Deion Mathieu.
"Life as I know it has changed," he wrote, attaching the image of young Mathieu, pictured right.
Mathieu was in Maysville, KY -- where his girlfriend lives -- and present at the hospital for the birth.
Later, Gophers coach Richard Pitino tweeted his congratulations to the couple.
"A lot of late nights and early mornings ahead of you!" he wrote.
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