With a very young and undersized roster on the horizon, the Minnesota men's basketball staff is understandably looking at experience and size as two major directives for the two scholarships that remain in the Gophers' bank after Reggie Lynch's commitment on Tuesday.
Junior College forward and Bloomington native Cullen Russo fills both of those boxes, and could be a welcomed addition in the next few weeks. As a sophomore, the 6-9 New Mexico Junior College player averaged 11.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 51.4 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three-point range (41.9 percent in conference play).
Russo is visiting Fresno State today before traveling to Minnesota this weekend. A third visit -- to Wichita State -- was rescheduled to May 2 after weather-related issues forced him to miss his last appointment. The Gophers -- assistant coach Ben Johnson in particular -- have been hard after Russo this spring.
I chatted with New Mexico JUCO coach James Miller to learn a little more about Russo. Some of our conversation:
How have you seen Cullen change since he first came to New Mexico Junior College a year ago? (Cullen played for one year at Southern Idaho before he transferred following a coaching change.)
Oh yeah, he's grown on and off the floor since he's been here. Academically, he's done a much better job this year. He's been right at 3.0 through the course of a year and should end the year there as long as he finishes these last two weeks strong. On the floor, he was able to shoot the ball better from the perimeter ... he played really well for us the last 19, 20 games. The last 20 games, he was a really good player for us -- from a couple of weeks before the Christmas break until the very end.
Which schools are pursuing him the hardest right now?
In the last couple weeks, I wouldn't say it's narrowed because it's not a closed recruitement by any means, but Minnesota has been very persistent. Minnesota, Wichita State and Fresno State, those are kind of the three that are sticking out right now. There is still a host of other schools that are contacting him and calling him and trying to schedule other visits. But as of today, those are the three -- I wouldn't say its fully narrowed down, but those are the ones he's really kind of focused on. He's not leaning any way [between those three] right now. He's just open-minded to the whole process and looking to see what each school has. He wants to figure out where is the best basketball fit and obviously the best fit academically and where he feels comfortable.
Would he take any other official visits?
Those are the three he's set up. With the time of year it is, to do more than three would be kind of difficult. So I think it's one of those deals where if he likes one of those three, I think he'll be comfortable pulling the trigger, but if not, he has two more to use if he so chooses.
Does the fact that Minnesota is his home state and the Gophers are his home state team play into his decision at all?
I think it does, obviously because he's very familiar with the lay of the land. It's not one of those deals where 'Hey, I need to go home' like some kids are, but I don't think it hurts either. Growing up in that environment, he's pretty familiar with what the expectations are for Minnesota basketball. Obviously, it's a different team that the one he grew up watching, but obviously he understands what Minnesota has to offer.
What is important to him in making his decision?
I think he wants to go somewhere where he's going to play and have the best chance to play a significant role. Whichever team it is, whichever school it is. Obviously he wants a structured environment and to be around people that will care about him on a consistent basis and help him through good and bad times like any kids. He doesn't want anything extravagent or different than most young men do. I think he has a pretty good idea that these three schools will probably be good in those areas.
Have you mostly played him at small forward or power forward this past year?
He's 6-8, 6-9, he could play either one to be honest with you -- he played the three and four [spots] in high school. For us, the four plays on the perimeter for the most part and offensively you can create so many mismatches at that position. If you have a bigger floor guy at that position, he can take him on the perimeter and drive by him or shoot the three. If you have a smaller guy, he can post him up, because he's 220 pounds, he's not like skinny.
How versatile would you say he is? He also averaged almost two steals per game this year, and as you pointed out earlier, has pretty good range.
Extremely. He can shoot the three, he can guard multiple positions. He can dribble the ball, he can pass the ball, he can shoot it. He's extremely versatile. If they need him to play the small forward or the four, he can do either one. He has that ability to where you can use him to create mismatches offensively and defensively he can guard multiple positions.
Do you see him fitting into Richard Pitino ball from what you're seen?
He's 6-8, 6-9, he can run and jump, he's got good length. He moves well. So if he's in a situation where you're pressing, he'd be great in that. If they're switching ball screens and playing zone, he's great in that. Picking and popping, coming off ball screens, he can do that as well. He's really versatile, so he could play in a lot of situations, but in order to go up and down and use his athleticism and his length and his ability to move at the three and the four, I think that [style] would fit him pretty good with the way they play.
Do you think he's big enough and physical enough to play the power forward effectively at the next level, not just in pick-and-pop situations, but banging around with opponents in the paint, that sort of game?
He'll get in there and bang. He's not one of those guys that can only floats. He'll go in there and compete. If he gets to the next level where they have better meals and protein shakes and better strength and conditioning, he really has the type of frame where he can add 10 or 15 pounds easily. So realistically come October or November of next year after a summer in the weight room and better meals, I would believe that he could be pushing 230. But he fights. He's not scared to go in there and battle.
What's the biggest thing he needs to work on in his game this summer in your opinion?
Just being consistent in his game, just staying in the gym, getting stronger. You can never be a good enough shooter.