As Richard Pitino walked off the court after his Gophers basketball team’s exhibition win against Minnesota Duluth, he looked into the crowd to see Daniel Oturu’s father and sister walking up to high-five the players.
A few rows up, Pitino saw the families of Gabe Kalscheur and Jarvis Omersa as well, smiling and feeling good about Minnesota’s talented freshman trio — once former AAU teammates — donning maroon and gold.
“That’s what recruiting local kids is all about,” said Pitino, who hopes to see his freshmen continue to shine for the Gophers (1-0) on Monday night against Utah (1-0) at Williams Arena. “They just want to play for the name on the front of the jersey.”
Pitino’s not alone among Big Ten basketball coaches opening this season relying on freshmen. Indiana’s Romeo Langford, a projected NBA lottery pick, leads the bunch, but 10 of the league’s 14 teams had at least one freshman in the starting lineup.
If you judge Minnesota’s 2018 recruiting class on rankings, it was solid but not Pitino’s best. Still, based on their roles and local ties, Oturu, Kalscheur and Omersa have the chance to make the biggest impact of any crop of freshmen in recent program history.
The last time at least two true freshmen started in the opener for the Gophers was when Jim Dutcher brought in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class in 1978. Minnesota won the Big Ten title four years later.
In the Gophers’ first open gym this summer, Omersa used his 44-inch vertical to slam a lob pass down over returning All-Big Ten forward Jordan Murphy. It was an early statement that this group was “not going to back down” from anyone, Omersa said.
In last week’s 104-76 win against Omaha, Oturu had 14 points and eight rebounds as the starting center, Kalscheur had eight points as the starting wing, and Omersa had eight points, including a couple of alley-oop dunks, as a spark off the bench.
“I’m here to bring great defense to the team,” said Kalscheur, an ex-DeLaSalle standout. “I’m here to knock down shots. I don’t want to go outside of my role, but I’m here to make a big contribution.”
Oturu, a 6-foot-10 shot blocker with low-post scoring skills, was the first to commit, as a junior in high school. He carried a grin as large as the curls protruding from under his gold Gophers cap while announcing his decision in front of Cretin-Derham Hall classmates and his family in January 2017.
It didn’t matter that Kansas had offered Oturu a scholarship, or that Michigan State had growing interest and was near offering. Oturu dreamed of getting hometown love like former Hopkins star Amir Coffey did when he stayed home and reached the NCAA tournament his freshman year two seasons ago.
Oturu persuaded Omersa and Kalscheur to join the U’s class that summer.
“We just have that Minnesota pride and want to make the Gophers fans happy,” Oturu said. “It was just another factor that played into our decision coming here, just trying to help the Gopher program keep going forward.”
It wasn’t hard to imagine Oturu, a top-30 recruit, being an immediate inside presence, but he wasn’t fully cleared from spring shoulder surgery until October. He arrived at 213 pounds this summer, but he’s now close to 240. The added bulk will be useful now that he’s thrust into a starting role with redshirt sophomore Eric Curry out for at least another five weeks after knee surgery.
“I know I can score, I know I can rebound, I know I can block shots,” Oturu said. “When I focus on helping my team win is when I play my best. The size will be the most difficult thing [in college]. Everybody is as big as you, but that’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”
It’s been a while since Gophers fans have seen three freshmen from Minnesota all able to contribute right away. They want to keep making their family and friends watching every home game proud.
“We all bring a bunch of energy and work ethic to the team,” Kalscheur said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun to play with them this year.”