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
The first notable coaching rumor involving Richard Pitino since his landing in Minnesota has come and gone.
Donnie Tyndall, formerly of Southern Miss, was announced as the new basketball coach at the University of Tennessee on Tuesday, effectively silencing any whispers tying Pitino to the job.
The Volunteers' coaching search began a week ago, on Tuesday, after former coach Cuonzo Martin accepted a job at California.
The next day, USA Today included Pitino's name on a list of possible candidates that Tennessee AD Dave Hart could be considering. Later on Wednesday afternoon, ESPN's Jeff Goodman reported that Pitino was on the Volunteers' short list.
From the start, Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague insisted Pitino, who was quiet throughout the process, was not interested in leaving.
In his first season at Minnesota, Pitino, who is heading into his third year as a head coach after one season at Florida International, directed the Gophers to a 25-13 overall record (8-10 in the Big Ten) and an NIT championship.
The University of Minnesota has yet to pen a basketball recruit in the spring signing period, but coach Richard Pitino and his staff are staying active.
The Gophers hosted Illinois State transfer Zach Lofton on campus over the weekend and could be considering adding the 6-4 guard to their current 2014 class.
It certainly seems the interest is there on Lofton's part. On Saturday, the St. Paul native tweeted "Visit to University of Minnesota was ill."
(Which means he thought it was great for those of you not up on current Hip Speak.)
Former Columbia Heights High School coach Willie Braziel called Lofton, who has two years of eligibility remaining, "ecstatic" to hear from Minnesota.
"That's where Zach wanted to go long before he ever went to Illinois State," Braziel said. "I don't think I can put it any clearer than that -- Zach's original wish was to be a Gopher."
It remains to be seen how interested Minnesota is. Braziel said to his knowledge there has been no official offer yet.
Minnesota has three scholarships remaining for a 2014 class that currently includes forward Josh Martin and guards Carlos Morris and Nate Mason. Overseas forward Gaston Diedhiou has committed, but not yet signed.
Most likely, Lofton would need to sit out a year. Braziel said he doesn't think there are any potential waivers being discussed. The Gophers would need to decide if they think it's worth it to sign a marginal high-major player for 2015 right now.
There are potential off-the-court concerns as well. Lofton was suspended for the final three games of the season at Illinois State for undisclosed reasons. Braziel said Minnesota assistant Ben Johnson reached out to him to ask about Lofton's character.
"When you leave a program you're not leaving usually because things went well," Braziel said. "So [the Gophers staff was] concerned about what may or may not have happened and what makes an athlete transfer. They wanted to make sure-- were there problems with me coaching him? Were there problems with family members? I didn't have any of those problems.
"Academically, I don't think they'll find any problems with Zach [either]."
Braziel said he doesn't think Lofton is talking seriously with any other schools right now. He mentioned Lofton could consider going the Division II route if the right program came along if he decided he didn't want to sit out a year.
The coach also said he thinks Lofton -- who played one season at San Jacinto Junior College (Texas) before playing last season at Illinois State -- is capable of impacting a program at the top collegiate level.
"I can honestly say I've never had a quicker guard," he said. "Basketball IQ? As high as you're gonna get, at any level."
Minnesota's chances with its top target looked a little more secure on Friday night, when Bakary Konate told the Star Tribune he had cancelled his official visit to Tulane.
"I told coach 'I am sorry,'" he said, referring to Tulane coach Ed Conroy. "I had to make my decision to stay here."
Now, the 2014 big man -- who has been the apple of Gophers coach Richard Pitino's eye for some time -- hopes to make his decision within the next couple of weeks.
The 6-11 Mali native has said publicly that his top schools include Minnesota, Texas A&M, Tulane and Creighton. Friday, Konate said he already knew what his eventual choice would be but he wanted to wait to announce it.
Minnesota is the only of the four schools that he has visited. The center, who is currently playing at Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas, did not rule out trying to visit another school in the next week or two.
The Gophers badly need more size to step in behind Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker, who will each be in their last year of eligibility next season. Konate, who Pitino discovered while recruiting Sunrise's Lourawls 'Tum Tum' Nairn (who has since committed to Michigan State), appears to be a good fit for Minnesota's new system. While the 230-pound center likely will be expected to gain weight and strength, he runs well for his size and can shoot from distance. With Eliason and Walker around, the Gophers would have the luxury of bringing Konate along slowly and developing his post game.
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino has publicly said he views Year One with the Gophers as a "great success."
Just how much did a 25-13 overall record, 8-10 campaign in the Big Ten and an NIT championship net the young coach?
Well, foremost he appears to have the support of his current fanbase, which is invaluable. Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague hasn't offered up a raise or extension of any kind so far, but generally there seem to be good vibes all around.
But Minnesota eyes weren't the only ones he caught with his positive start. The 2013-14 effort was enough to land him in some highly respected company in regards to at least one national job search.
After ESPN's Jeff Goodman reported on Wednesday that Pitino was on the University of Tennessee's "short list" for replacing Cuonzo Martin, things have been pretty quiet in the Volunteers camp.
Teague reiterated on Wednesday that Pitino, who has a $1.5 million buyout, is happy in Minnesota and is not interested in Tennessee.
But Tennessee basketball fans seem interested in him.
A poll conducted by the Knoxville News Sentinel reveals Pitino as the fourth favorite for a new coach among the nearly 5,000 who participated. He received nine percent of votes behind Wichita State's Gregg Marshall (35 percent), VCU's Shaka Smart (18) and Southern Miss' Donnie Tyndall (9 percent also).
See the full poll here.
Does that mean Pitino is more likely to become the head coach? Of course not. There is still no evidence that Pitino -- who is not speaking with the media -- is even interested (although it's tough to believe he wouldn't at least be intrigued if Tennessee was serious).
Yet it's something Gophers fans should grow to expect in the next few seasons as long as Pitino finds success. With just two years as a head coach under his belt, Pitino is still extremely young in his career. These days, though, after watching the Shaka Smarts and Brad Stevens of the world excel quickly and consistently, rising stars are very attractive. Pitino's "stock" could certainly go up in the next few years. But pitted against an annually tough Big Ten slate, it could also go down.
Rarely do programs experience a flurry of new recruits in the spring, but that's just what Minnesota is hoping for this season.
The Gophers still have three scholarships remaining for the 2014 class and just more than a month to fill them. The late signing period began on Wednesday and ends May 21.
There are a couple of critical items on the checklist.
Foremost, Minnesota is in need of size. With centers Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker each looking at their last year of eligibility and the power forward position further thinned by the early retirement of Oto Osenieks, the Gophers covet depth and future stability at both positions.
It also wouldn't hurt to add a versatile guard/wing to a corps that loses Austin Hollins and Maverick Ahanmisi this season. The Gophers are stacked at the point guard spot, with DeAndre Mathieu, Andre Hollins and Nate Mason all able to play the position but could use another option to come off the bench for shooting guard or small forward spots.
The trick is finding the clams amongst the shells. After a furious fall, the pickings are much slimmer in the spring, but it doesn't mean there aren't gems to be had.
Six-nine power forward Gaston Diedhiou, who currently plays in the Canary Islands of Spain, committed last week but has not yet signed. The Gophers anticipate his National Letter of Intent within the next day or two. Like most overseas players, Diedhiou, who originally hails from Senegal, will likely come to Minnesota very raw and certainly very unheralded.
Bakary Konate, a big man from Kansas by way of his home country of Mali, is still Minnesota's top prospect although he appears to be to flexing his options. Konate will officially visit Tulane this weekend according to rivals.com's Ryan James, who first reported the trip. While some have said a Minnesota commitment seems near, Konate has publicly said he has no timetable for a decision between his top schools, which include Creighton and Texas A&M (Minnesota Daily's Jace Frederick also reported Oklahoma as part of that mix).
An option for another wing type player could be Justin Martin, a 6-6 soon-to-be graduate who announced last week he would transfer out of Xavier for his final season of eligibility. The forward averaged 11.7 points and 5.2 rebounds last season while averaging 37.3 percent of his shots from three-point range. He would be eligible right away via the graduate transfer rule.
New targets could emerge in the next couple of weeks as well. With a direct path to Division I looking more and more unlikely for Djuan Piper, the Gophers could turn their sights elsewhere. Right now, there isn't a ton of buzz in the way of guards.
A few other notes:
*Former Gophers guard Wally Ellenson intends to transfer elsewhere in order to compete in both basketball and high jumping, his mother, Holly Ellenson told the Star Tribune. Among the schools he's pursuing: Texas Tech, where Tubby Smith has again offered his former recruit, and Baylor.
*Minnesota video coordinator Casey Stanley has accepted an assistant coaching job at UNC-Wilmington under newly hired head coach (and former Louisville assistant) Kevin Keatts. Stanley worked for Pitino for two years, dating back to Florida International.
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