Of all the Big Ten-Big East matchups this year, St. John’s vs. Minnesota doesn’t jump off the page when it comes to most appealing, especially based on last season’s records.
The Gophers (3-0) and Red Storm (2-0) meet Friday night at Williams Arena with both teams having won only eight games in 2015-16. They went a combined 3-33 in conference play.
But the coaching matchup is notable: the son of a Hall of Famer in the Gophers’ Richard Pitino vs. St. John’s Chris Mullin, a Hall of Fame player. Most of all, the New York connections are intriguing, not just on the court but also the recruiting trail.
Mullin, a former St. John’s star before playing 16 NBA seasons, added several recruits to the Red Storm this season to make them a more competitive team. Pitino has done the same with the Gophers, who are getting major contributions from several newcomers.
“They remind me of us, in that there’s a newfound optimism,” Pitino said. “They signed some really good freshmen, really good transfers sat out last year. You can tell they’ve got a renewed confidence.”
Pitino considers New York one of his top recruiting bases. Mullin’s goal is also to keep the best players in New York from leaving. So they have competed with one another for recruits.
Mullin beat out Pitino for New Jersey guard Malik Ellison, the son of former NBA player Pervis Ellison, in the 2015 recruiting class.
Even while finishing 8-24 (1-17 in the Big East) in his first year as coach, Mullin landed his first high-profile prospect from New York in the 2016 class with four-star point guard Shamorie Ponds, who came to Minnesota on a recruiting visit.
Ponds, a Brooklyn native, is now starting for St. John’s with redshirt freshman guard Marcus Lovett. Lovett and Ponds are the team’s scoring leaders.
“I just decided to stay home to set a trend,” Ponds said Thursday. “Just to tell New York guys, you should stay home and play in front of your friends and family.”
In 2016, Pitino offered Ponds a scholarship, hoping he could play in the backcourt with current sophomore Dupree McBrayer, a Queens native. It didn’t work out, but Pitino is a big fan of Ponds’ game.
“I think he’s extremely talented,” Pitino said. “He’s got to be one of the best freshmen in the Big East.”
Pitino wants to keep the best in-state players from leaving Minnesota. But he had more success in the 2017 recruiting class on the East Coast. The Gophers signed four-star New York point guard Isaiah Washington and New Jersey shooting guard Jamir Harris.
One of the recruiting pitches — besides having a well-connected New York native on staff in assistant Kimani Young — is that the Gophers will play Ohio State at Madison Square Garden as part of a hockey/basketball doubleheader next year. The Big Ten tournament will also be held at MSG in 2018.
“We’re always going to recruit there,” Pitino said. “We’ve got some good contacts there. It fits very well to talk about going back to the East Coast, playing in this challenge, playing in the tournament and all those things.”
Mullin has two New York natives on his roster with Ponds and junior college transfer Bashir Ahmed from the Bronx. The Gophers will have two next season with Washington and McBrayer.
Both the Gophers and Red Storm offered scholarships to high-profile New York prospects such as Sidney Wilson and Moses Brown in 2018 and Bryce Wills in 2019.
McBrayer, tied with Nate Mason as the Gophers’ scoring leader, hopes his success keeps the trend going with New York players heading west to play for the Gophers.
“I wouldn’t say I started it,” McBrayer said. “But it’s cool to have kids from my neighborhood or kids I played high school ball with come into this program.”