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
With just over two weeks remaining in the spring signing period (it ends May 20), the University of Minnesota men’s basketball program has one more scholarship to potentially dole out.
Already, the Gophers have added wing Ahmad Gilbert and big man transfer Reggie Lynch to a four-player class that was secured this fall. Now, coach Richard Pitino and his staff can make it the largest recruiting class in years if they so choose, but expect them to be picky.
A couple of Minnesota’s prime targets are now off the table. Malik Ellison, who seemed bound for the Gophers before assistant Dan McHale’s departure for the head job at Eastern Kentucky, committed instead to St. John’s on Friday. JUCO Player of the Year Chris Boucher has narrowed his list to omit the Gophers (he’s told reporters his final three are Texas Tech, TCU and Oregon). Once-targets Craig Randall, Tyson Jolly, Jamall Gregory and JUCO Mychal Mulder have all either committed, narrowed their lists to exclude Minnesota or fallen out of the Gophers’ interest.
Now, you can add JUCO forward and Bloomington-native Cullen Russo to that list. Although Russo recently named Fresno State and Minnesota as his top two programs, multiple sources say the Gophers’ now feel he isn’t the best fit for the final spot. Russo is expected to commit in the next couple of days: expect it to be to the Bulldogs.
So what are the Gophers’ remaining options? Let’s take a look:
Jordan Murphy: Although his name hasn’t been brought up much in the last few months, the Gophers’ interest is still high in this 6-7 three-star small forward.
Kyle Washington: The Gophers would love to have the Champlin native … just like everyone else in the country. At 6-9, 230 pounds, the North Carolina State transfer would certainly help fill a size void, even after sitting a year.
Jordan Caroline: The Southern Illinois transfer told Gopher Illustrated (Rivals) that he would be in Minnesota this weekend. Cincinnati, Xavier and Nevada are in play as well.
Tyler Kohl: One of the Gophers’ longest-pursued targets in the 2015 class, the 6-5, 225-pound Kohl is still waiting out a decision – perhaps to wring as much interest as he can out of a recruitment that’s dwindled somewhat.
Novian Cherry: The San Diego native is the other JUCO that topped Minnesota’s original list, but Cherry hasn’t gotten as much attention as the other three (Russo, Boucher and Mulder) that the Gophers were initially targeting. The Gophers still have a hand in his recruitment, but it’s unclear how serious they are about the wing, especially after getting a commitment from Gilbert.
Stand pat: The Gophers have a good solid class, now, and shouldn’t feel any urgency to use that final scholarship. If one of their top-tier targets works out, great. Otherwise, Minnesota could benefit from saving it for 2016. The Gophers are projected to have just two scholarships available for that class – that number can change with any transfers, redshirts, dismissals – and one of those already has Rochester commit Michael Hurt’s name on it.
Zach Lofton: Per two sources, there is a small chance Pitino would take the Illinois State transfer back after dismissing him from the team -- citing a failure to meet their expectations and obligations -- before the start of the regular season last year. Lofton has been enrolled in classes ever since then, meaning that he would be eligible this fall, but that reality would require several things. First, that Minnesota doesn’t use the scholarship elsewhere. Second, that he fulfills some requirements set by the team. And third, that the Gophers decide the talent gained outweighs saving a scholarship for the following class, as well as the potential embarrassment that comes along with taking a previously dismissed player back into the fold.
Longtime Minnesota 2015 target Malik Ellison has chosen St. John's as the school he'll be attending and the program he'll be playing basketball for in the fall.
The 6-5 wing out of New Jersey held a press conference on Friday to announce his decision. Alex Kline of the RecruitScoop.com first tweeted the news.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino and his staff have been pursuing the late bloomer since the fall, and were considered to be the heavy favorite as recently as recently as a month ago. Since then, however, Minnesota assistant Dan McHale -- and the staff member who had taken the lead in Ellison's recruitment -- accepted the head coaching job at Eastern Kentucky, a move that seemingly stalled the momentum. The Gophers also got a commitment from Ahmad Gilbert, a wing with a similar game to that of Ellison -- one source believed to be the leading factor in the latter's wane in interest.
Minnesota is still in good shape for 2015 from a recruiting perspective. With six recruits -- Gilbert, guards Dupree McBrayer, Jarvis Johnson and Kevin Dorsey, and big men Jonathan Nwankwo and (redshirt) Reggie Lynch -- plus another scholarship available should they decide to use it, the Gophers appear to have the makings of a top-25 class, along with much-needed depth at a few critical positions.
The spring signing period ends on May 20.
With longtime walk-on Kendall Shell getting his degree and moving on, the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team has added another guard for the coming fall.
Stephon Sharp, a Minneapolis native who played at Hopkins High School, will walk on along with the 2015 class, a source confirmed to the Star Tribune.
The 6-4 shooter spent last season at The Kent School in Connecticut before returning home. He joins Mike Lukashewich and Darin Haugh as the third non-scholarship player on the roster.
At one point, Minnesota getting a commitment from 2015 wing Malik Ellison seemed imminent. Gophers’ assistant Dan McHale was spending as much time recruiting and talking with Ellison as he legally could, and Minnesota appeared to be the strong frontrunner to nab the three-star late bloomer.
But now? The feel has changed. Although Ellison said last week over text that his communication with Minnesota is still good and that he was “not really” bothered by the departure of McHale – who recently accepted the head coaching position at Eastern Kentucky – the 6-6 New Jersey athlete suddenly seems less interested in locking down his fate in Minneapolis.
In the last couple of weeks, Ellison – son of former No. 1 overall pick Pervis Ellison -- has officially visited South Carolina (his only other official besides his January trip to Minnesota) and will unofficially visited St. John’s tomorrow. He tweeted that he would make his decision soon after that – perhaps very soon after – but at this point, it’s anyone’s game.
“No favorites,” Ellison said over text after picking up the offer from the Red Storm on April 20.
A month ago, those surrounding the program believed a commitment from the versatile scorer was all but in the bag. Now, it certainly appears that Ellison is second-guessing (if he ever was indeed so sure about his landing spot).
The Gophers, who have carried on with their recruiting push, got a commitment last week from Ahmad Gilbert, who, as a small forward with similar game to Ellison's, could affect his ultimate destination. Ellison has been vocal about how important playing time is to his decision. St. John’s, which lost seniors D’Angelo Harrison and Sir Dominic Pointer after last season, seems to have room.
Rutgers – which Ellison has visited unofficially -- is also making a big push, and rounds out what are believed to be the wing’s top schools, but the high school senior also included Pittsburgh and Wake Forest in his short list of schools, over text.
The Gophers have one more scholarship available for the 2015 class, should they decide to use it. Coach Richard Pitino and staff are going after several others – including JUCO big man Chris Boucher – but more depth at the small forward spot could also be beneficial.
But the timeline has been drawn out in a way that doesn’t seem to favor Minnesota – if Ellison does make a decision this week, I’d be surprised if he chooses the Gophers.
Ahmad Gilbert became the second recruit this week to give Minnesota the nod when he committed to coach Richard Pitino during his official visit on Thursday.
Gilbert, who originally committed to George Mason, but who reopened his recruitment after coach Paul Hewitt was fired recently, is a lefty three-star wing from Philadelphia with a knack for shooting the three ball using his length and athleticism on the defensive end.
After the Gophers traveled to Pennsylvania for a home visit at the beginning of the week, Gilbert journeyed to Minneapolis and quickly made his decision. I caught up with his four-year coach at Constitution High School, Robert Moore, about Gilbert's development, strengths, weaknesses and his attraction to Minnesota.
Did you see Ahmad pulling the trigger this week?
I could kind of tell on Monday from the look on the kid's face that he was excited and leaning towards [Minnesota]. I left the home visit on Monday feeling like it would be done by the end of the week. The Penn State coach [Patrick Chambers] called and wanted to set up a visit. I told him basically if [Gilbert] comes back from Minnesota uncommitted, then we’ll bring him up. But in my mind, I didn’t expect him to come back uncommitted.
I was just impressed by coach Pitino and [assistant] coach [Kimani] Young, just their sincerity and what they brought to the table, their professionalism and everything else associated with how they’ve recruited Ahmad. I just felt like it was going to be a good fit.
How did Minnesota's commitment compare with that of other programs, and what was Ahmad attracted to?
They really wanted Ahmad. They’d seen the opportunity to see him over a couple of years. As soon as the opportunity came about once Coach Hewitt got fired at Mason, coach Kimani was at several games. It’s not like Minnesota is THAT far but it’s not like he’s driving up the block either. We had seen him consistently at a lot of our playoff games. We’d look up and there’s Kimani. It was just a gut feeling for me, really with Kimani and with coach Pitino.
They brought us a lot of renderings of what they’re doing [with transforming Bierman Athletic Building]. I’ve never been to Minnesota but just the pictures of the campus and the way everything is set up really really looked amazing to me. The kid was there in April and not in January so that definitely made a big difference. I imagine it’s not the best of times in January. The kid is very interested in studying business, Minnesota has a great business school [Carlson]. I think that things started to click.
The small forward spot was really the biggest wildcard for Minnesota. Do you think that play into Ahmad's decision as well?
One of the things about the George Mason roster is there were seven or eight guys who were small forward type of guys. And when you look at Minnesota, there are none -- there is nobody. You have a kid who is a 4 [power forward] playing the 3 [small forward] or a kid who is a 2 [shooting guard] playing the 3. And even with the kids that have committed so far this year, there is still that gaping hole.
But all three of my seniors that just got Division I scholarships, I didn’t play any of them their freshmen year [because they had talented guys ahead of them]. So they know what it's like. They're going to come in and say if I'm not the man right away, this is the same process I'm going to go through again to be better. I told coach Pitino and Kimani that him being able to play right away is great, but the only thing we care about is is he going to be better in four years, is he going to reach his potential.
How much of his identity is as a shooter?
He’s 6-7 and he can really shoot the ball. He shot 6-for-12 from beyond the arc in our state championship game. And none of them were like high school threes. He pulls up, he’s shooting NBA threes in high school. Down the stretch, our last two games – our semifinal game he didn’t make a shot. He was 11-for-12 or 12-for-13 from the floor and the one shot he missed was a dunk and he was fouled on it. He went to the foul line and hit both foul shots.
I’ve coached a lot of kids and there are not a lot of kids that have come along that can shoot the ball like him. He’s got an up-and-down game like Pitino likes to play, and as long as he gets some open looks. The reality is he's got to get a little bit stronger in order to defend, and he’s got to work on being able to create his own shot at this level. But it’s going to come because he has all the tools, all the resources.
You played him mostly at power forward, right?
It's the nature of college basketball. I had a 6-6 guy in the middle, and I played three guards and Ahmad...He wasn’t the kind of four man that is going to take the ball in the post and pound it down. No, he'll take the ball, he'll spin away. He’s got a beautiful fadeaway jumpshot. He would do those types of things out of the post… He's really good at finding seams in the zone where he can just turn and get his shot off really quick and he just makes it at a really high rate. I think he’s a three. That’s his natural position.
Ahmad originally committed to George Mason last summer, quite early in his recruitment. Then coach Paul Hewitt was fired this March. How did he take that turnover?
It was bad. Imagine being so committed. He committed maybe too early for my liking but ultimately I tell a kid if you’re comfortable, I’ll support you. Ultimately, once I met [the coaches at George Mason], I was comfortable. I knew he was going at a lower level than he could have …I knew he was cutting himself short a little bit by not seeing some other schools. It worked out the way it worked out, unfortunately for the coaching staff there, but now I think Ahmad gets the chance to really prove himself.
You mentioned getting stronger and learning how to better create his own shot -- what other things are critical for him to work on this summer in your opinion?
He needs to work on a lot, but who doesn’t need to work on a lot at 18 years old? ...The strength and conditioning coach for the basketball program, that’s got to be Ahmad’s best friend. He’s a typical high school kid – I’m sure he eats more McDonald’s than he should and he’s never touched a weight. I joked with coach Pitino that we he does his preseason physical they need to check him for a tape worm because he eats all the time but he hasn’t put on a lot of weight. So I’m thinking once he starts eating and he’s meeting with the strength and conditioning people, that he’s getting there. Once you see him, he’s long and his frame is amazing. He can be really really dangerous once he puts on 20-25 pounds of muscle and once he reaches his potential.
Do you think he's versatile enough offensively to contribute right away at the next level, or would you like to see him grow his scoring potential outside of the long-range jumper?
He definitely needs to improve his ability to take the ball to the hole and find different ways to find his shot, get a little better at coming off of screens and setting screens. I told coach, he can be really good at pick-and-pop. He sets a good screen and he can pop out and really hit the shot. But that’s why they get paid the big bucks. I only make like $6,000 as a high school coach but they get paid the big bucks to take him from where he is now and make him into a man and a Big Ten college basketball player.
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