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Gophers basketball adding St. John's, Arkansas to 2016-17 men's schedule

The University of Minnesota men's basketball team has added a pair of home matchups with major-conference teams to its schedule for the 2016-17 season.

The Gophers will play host St. John’s in the second season of the Gavitt Tipoff games, an annual series to be played between Big Ten and Big East schools. A source also confirmed to the Star Tribune on Tuesday that Minnesota will play a home-and-home series with Arkansas starting next season.

That series will begin at Williams Arena this winter. A return game will be held in Fayetteville, Ark. the following year. CBS Sports reporter Jon Rothstein first reported the news of the Arkansas matchup on Monday.

The matchup with St. John's – which Minnesota last played in 2014 in a victory at Madison Square Garden in the NIT Season Tip-off – will also be in Minneapolis on Friday, Nov. 18, according to a university release. The game marks the Gophers’ first appearance in the Gavitt Games, which debuted last season. Only eight games are played between the conferences each year meaning that not all Big Ten and Big East teams participate in a given season.

“This is a great matchup for our team and will be an exciting game at the Barn in November,” coach Richard Pitino said in the release. “St. John’s is one of the most storied programs in the Big East and after playing them two years ago in New York, we look forward to the challenges of hosting them this season.”

Pitino said earlier this offseason that the team was finalizing a home-and-home series with a power-conference team that he believed would entice fans along with the previously unannounced Big East matchup.

“You’re looking at potentially two non-conference opponents at home that I know would get people excited at the Barn,” he told media last month. “We’re still kind of looking and adding a couple things as well. Scheduling is something I think everyone tries to figure out… there are so many components that go into it. But we want our guys ready for the Big Ten obviously.”

St. John’s is coming off an even worse season than Minnesota in coach Chris Mullin's first year at the helm. The Red Storm finished with the same number of wins (8) and one more loss (24) than the Gophers while enduring a 16-game losing streak and a stretch of 21 losses in the final 22 games, a slide that spanned from mid-December to March. Although St. John’s is expected to improve somewhat next season, the team will be quite young and not yet in position to benefit from a pair of highly regarded transfers – Justin Simon (Arizona) and Marvin Clark (Michigan State) who won’t be eligible until the fall of 2017.

Arkansas, meanwhile, went 16-16 last year, with an opening-round loss in the SEC conference tournament standing as the Razorbacks’ only post season. It was the fourth time in coach Mike Anderson’s five seasons that the team has failed to make the NCAA tournament. A five-man recruiting class that includes one four-star and three three-star prospects should help, particularly in the backcourt and on the wing. Arkansas last saw Minnesota in the Maui Invitation in Pitino’s first season with the Gophers. The Razorbacks won 87-73.

Champlin Park's John knows how badly Gophers fans want him

Theo John has a pretty good idea of how badly Minnesota Gophers fans want him to stay home and play at the U after he graduates from Champlin Park High School next spring.

He hears it at school. He hears it on Twitter. One day last summer, he walked out to his car from his house and found it covered with maroon and gold décor – including streamers and stuffed Goldys – and surrounded by sidewalk-chalk pleas to stay in Minnesota for the next phase of his life.

“I asked coach ‘Do you have anything to do with this?’” He said ‘No, that’s just some loyal fans,’” John said with a chuckle. “My parents were dying. They thought it was hilarious.”

But streamers or not, John is set on living out the process, one he has put a lot of thought into as his recruitment has burgeoned.  

“I’m looking for a great coach, one I know is going to be there when I’m going to be there,” John said. "A coach that is going to push me, players that are going to push me, a great environment with that, people that are going to push me academically as well. My parents are really pushing me with that, telling me that I need to go to a great academic school, get my education. There are a lot of things – facilities, that’s not the biggest part but it’s a factor. I look at the passion of the people that surround the program – the trainers, the managers, see how much they really care about the program, their fanbase. I look at a lot of stuff.”

He should have plenty of options.

The 2017 6-9 forward is ranked 119th in his national recruiting class by Rivals and 84th by ESPN and has garnered offers from the likes of Illinois, Iowa, Marquette, Nebraska, Oklahoma and, of course, Minnesota. Recently, Florida, Arizona State and Maryland have shown interest as well, and with John’s Howard Pulley AAU team a perfect 7-0 on the EYBL circuit, there could be others jumping on board soon.

“The team is playing really well together, we’ve got our chemistry down,” John said. “We’re playing good team defense and that’s really leading to our victories … You can see how much AAU can impact your recruitment. It’s definitely picked up after the last three sessions. Coaches are seeing that we’re undefeated and want to see what we’re all about.”

Meanwhile the Gophers have been hot on John, who they offered a scholarship to last March. The Champlin senior said he attended a handful of Minnesota basketball games last season and he is on campus often, whether it’s visiting friends or hanging around the team. He talks to assistant Ben Johnson every other day, he said, and has been invited to watch some of the team’s individual training session this summer. He also likes what he sees in the renderings of the in-progress basketball facility.

“That’s looking very nice from the pictures they’ve shown me, so it has the attraction of new stuff to it,” John said. “It’s nice just knowing that they’re home and they’re caring about me.”

He added: “It would be cool to be close to home but at the same time, I want to go somewhere that is best for me and if that’s across the world then I’m going to be going there.”

But John is in no hurry to commit anywhere after pushing back his decision date from “late April” to an indefinite. He’s only been on one official visit so far – at Oklahoma, earlier this month – and doesn’t have any others set up yet. Whether he’ll take all five that the NCAA allows is still very much up in the air. For now, John is concerned with working on his own game, in particular honing his long-range shot and bettering his ball handling to grow his value as a stretch-power forward, where, he says, most teams are recruiting him to play.

Any perceived local pressure on John and his decision is shrugged off by the player himself, much as he got a laugh about his decked out car.

“At the end of the day, people can’t hate me for wanting to do the best thing for myself,” he said. “It’s there, it’s present, but it doesn’t bug me and it won’t be one of my deciding factors, what other people want me to do.

“I’m just going to do what’s best for me and if that’s staying here, great, they’re going to love me and I’m going to have a lot more decorated cars.”