When Richard Pitino recruits players, there are three letters he hears more than any single word.
“It really is what it’s all about,” the 31-year-old Gophers coach said. “They come to Minnesota or any other Big Ten school with aspirations of playing in the NBA. That’s probably their first goal.”
The coach, coming up on his second season, does not yet have a track record at the U to show them.
The same goes for his school, at least as far as teenagers are concerned.
Thursday’s NBA draft is expected to be the 10th consecutive that ends with not one former Gopher called.
Among 14 Big Ten teams — including Maryland and Rutgers, which officially join the conference July 1 — only Northwestern, Nebraska and Penn State have longer droughts.
“There is a problem with that,” said Richard Coffey, who played for Minnesota from 1986 to 1990 and whose son, Amir, is a star at Hopkins and a 2016 recruit considering the Gophers. “You’re [in] one of the best conferences in the nation, you should have the ability to somewhat attract those kids.”
The gap is unprecedented in Minnesota history. Since 1957, the Gophers have had 43 players taken in the NBA draft — a total that ranks eighth among Big Ten teams, behind Ohio State and Iowa, with 44 each, and ahead of Wisconsin, with 28. Before 2004, the Gophers had gone no longer than five years without a player drafted.
But after forward Kris Humphries (now with Boston) was taken 14th overall by Utah in 2004, the steady train halted.
Those surrounding the program say Minnesota’s run of insufficient recruiting and an inability to develop talent is at the root.
A lack of big victories isn’t helping the cause either. In this 10-year span, the Gophers have finished higher than sixth in the conference just once (tied for fourth, 2004-05), and have won only one NCAA tournament game.
“The players haven’t been good enough,” said Flip Saunders, the Timberwolves coach and director of basketball operations, and former Gophers guard. “Bottom line is that they’ve kind of been on the edge. The last few years, they really haven’t had what you’d call a marquee, top-line all-conference type player.”
Smith’s style to blame?
Saunders noted that the style of former coach Tubby Smith, who after six years was fired following the 2012-13 season, was not particularly conducive to driving talent to the next level.
“He believed more in the team concept than individuals, so it didn’t really promote those types of players,” Saunders said.
The Gophers can count quite a collection of one-time players in his tenure who were initially thought to possess great NBA potential.
Rodney Williams (2009-13) was projected by many as a lottery pick when he arrived on campus, but his draft stock tumbled dramatically over four years under Smith.