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Pitino at Gophers fan event: "The goal is to win a Big Ten title"

As Richard Pitino waited to grab the microphone at Monday’s Gophers Road Trip kickoff event at TCF Bank Stadium, he shook his head at one particular line during his introduction.

Mike Grimm, the voice of the Gophers, mentioned the basketball team having the biggest turnaround in the country last season. That drew cheers. Pitino smiled.

But fans were also told to put the 8-23 record a year ago in the rear-view mirror.

Once Pitino addressed the crowd, he made it clear he’s tired hearing about the eight-win season in 2016.

 “We’re not going to do 8-23 every stop,” Pitino said. “We’re going to have to work on that. It was a great year; we don’t have to talk about two years ago.”

Maybe not. The Gophers were a 24-win and NCAA tournament team in 2017. And the fifth-year Minnesota coach with a new contract believes his team can make an NCAA tournament run and win a Big Ten title.

In the months since his team’s disappointing loss to Middle Tennessee in the NCAA tournament first round in March, Pitino has been fairly quiet about his expectations for next season.

Meanwhile, the Gophers have been a consensus early top 25 projection for the 2017-18 season.

With summer practice a couple weeks away, Pitino finally shed light on how special he believes the upcoming season could be with nearly everyone returning and recruits adding more talent to the mix.

“Hopefully our guys are extremely hungry to get back into the NCAA tournament, to compete for a Big Ten title, to make a run in the NCAA tournament,” Pitino told fans. “The goal is obviously to win a Big Ten title. And I think our expectations are high. They should be high and we’re excited about that.”

Michigan State and Minnesota have arguably the most returning talent in the Big Ten. But Pitino said he needs to make sure his players know that doesn't guarantee any success.

"The expectations will be extremely high," he said. "We've got everybody back, which is exciting. But I've got to get our guys to understand, you're not going to be good because you've got everybody back. So that's something I'll work on a lot over the eight weeks that they're with us this summer."

Pitino and Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck headline a month-long coaches’ bus tour that starts Monday with stops in Winona and Rochester. Pitino is anxious to sell a bright future for his basketball program. So is Gophers athletics director Mark Coyle, who thinks the Gophers can be a team that makes a deep NCAA tournament run soon.

“I tell people you’ll not meet a more competitive person than Mark Coyle,” he said. “I wouldn’t have come to Minnesota if it can’t be done. There’s no reason why not. You look women’s volleyball making the Final Four. If they can do it, men’s basketball can do it.”

-- Pitino didn’t know until this weekend that his top recruit, Isaiah Washington, would not be able to join the team this week. Washington, a four-star point guard from St. Raymond in New York, just graduated Saturday. So he won’t arrive in Minnesota until when freshmen typically show up just before summer school June 10. The same goes for Louisville 7-foot senior transfer Matz Stockman, who will sit out the 2017-18 season.

But three-star Patrick School (N.J.) guard Jamir Harris graduated a week ago and is already on campus.

“Jamir is the only one that’s here,” Pitino said Monday. “But it’s always good to get him in the class or two, just get him acclimated. I kind of stay away from him; get with him for breakfast one day. But let them more get adjusted to the on-campus life more than anything. So they’re ready to go when we need them to be.”






Ex-Gophers player helps Jarvis Thomas turn into a high-major talent

Watching the Howard Pulley Panthers this weekend in Maple Grove you might notice a 6-foot-9 former Gophers player in the crowd cheering on Jarvis Thomas.

Thomas, an explosive junior forward at Orono High School, got cut from a team at 13 years old. He couldn’t dunk as a 6-foot-3 eighth grader when he first met Jonathan Williams, who played for the Gophers from 2005-09. He thought about quitting the sport to focus on football. 

But after Williams started working with him over summers in St. Paul, it wasn’t long before he played with more confidence and eventually played above the rim, too.

"He's been a great influence," Thomas said. "He's kind of what got me started in this whole thing. Coach Jon wouldn't let me quit. He just kept working with me. We always did workouts -- and the rest is history."

Thomas is one of the fastest rising prospects not just in Minnesota but the entire country in the 2018 class. Videos of him soaring and slamming alley-oops and putbacks have been all over social media this spring from his AAU season.

“I thought he had a lot of potential,” Williams said. “Over time, he’s developed into a hell of a basketball player. It’s all deserving of him. He’s a rebounder, shot blocker and a junkyard dog. With his athleticism running the floor and being that work horse – you can get endless things out of him.”

Thomas and the Panthers, who have won 17 straight victories, host the Pulley Invitational on Friday through Sunday with 15, 16 and 17s teams playing at Maple Grove Community Gym.

The Gophers haven’t offered Thomas a scholarship yet, but they’ve shown more interest lately. So have schools like Xavier, Butler, Florida, Michigan and Michigan State, he says. It likely won’t be long before his major conference offers list expands from Pittsburgh and Texas A&M at this point.

Within the last year, Thomas has grown nearly two inches from 6-6 to about 6-8 and 220 pounds. He’s playing in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) for the first time. But he’s fit right in with new teammates, including Apple Valley star point guard Tre Jones, DeLaSalle three-point ace Gabe Kalscheur and Cretin-Derham Hall big man Daniel Oturu, a Gophers commit.

Thomas is averaging 7.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game for Pulley, which has already qualified for the Peach Jam championships with an 11-1 record.

"I didn't think it would be how it is; it's crazy how well we play together," Thomas said. "They got didn't exclude me at all, got me in the mix. Got me doing what I like. I like to run the floor. That's what we do."

Oturu and Thomas make for one of the most athletic frontcourts in the EYBL. They both excel at blocking shots, rebounding, running the floor and finishing strong at the rim. Oturu is trying to get Jones and Kalscheur to join him at the U. Thomas said he hears it, too. He tries not to focus on if Minnesota will offer him.

"Daniel definitely is on me about that," Thomas said. "(Gophers assistant coach) Ben Johnson called me the other day and asked me if I want to come up to see their new facility. We just have to figure out a date. … It’s the home state, I try not to let it affect me. If the offer comes then it comes. I would evaluate it just like I would any other school." 

Football is still a priority. He’ll play wide receiver again his senior year at Orono -- and decide after that if it's possible to play two sports in college. But the game he once thought didn’t suit him at all is now where he sees his brightest future. That's thanks to Williams and hard work.

“(Since the eighth grade) he’s been working out in the gym with me two to three times a week,” Williams said. “Things just started to click for him. He’s young (16). He doesn’t have a lot of basketball experience. So where he’s at right now, I saw it coming. It’s all starting to make sense for him.”