A big turnaround for Gophers men’s basketball this season is one thing for Richard Pitino. It’s another thing to be doing it with Minnesota natives powering that success.
In his first three seasons, Pitino had only one scholarship player from the state, Joey King, in his rotation. That was the case only one other time in the previous 24 Gophers seasons, when Chad Kolander was the lone Minnesotan with a main role for Clem Haskins in 1992-93.
Gophers fans — and recruits — have watched Pitino’s team go from eight victories last season to a top-25 ranking this week, and three Minnesotans are at the forefront of the transformation. Seeing the floor every night are starters Amir Coffey and Reggie Lynch and reserve Michael Hurt.
When Pitino saw an opportunity to bring in more local talent, he pounced.
“When you take a local kid, you can’t hide,” he said. “Because the families are there, the AAU coaches are there, the high school coaches are there. So everything you’ve talked about, you’ve got to hope it comes true. That’s your greatest recruiting asset is winning and getting guys better, especially locally.”
Pitino had to do his biggest selling job to land Coffey, a top-30 national recruit and the highest-ranked player to sign with the Gophers in seven years. The coach pitched a likely starting role, being featured in the offense handling the ball and winning at a high level.
So far, all of those things have come true, as the 24th-ranked Gophers (15-2, 3-1) carry their first top-25 ranking since 2013 into a rematch Wednesday with Michigan State (11-6, 3-1) in East Lansing.
Coffey, a 6-8 former Minnesota Mr. Basketball from Hopkins, knew if he signed with the Gophers and did well, others might want to follow him.
“I wanted to be another kid that stayed home,” Coffey said while being featured on Big Ten Network’s the Journey show Sunday. “Showcase that it’s something we can do.”
Coffey had 19 points in Sunday’s 78-68 victory against Ohio State to be named Big Ten freshman of the week for the second time, after also leading the Gophers in scoring with 17 points in a 70-66 victory at Northwestern.
“He’s never really had freshmen moments,” Pitino said. “He’s a big-game player. When you need that big shot, he wants to take it.”
Coffey’s emergence could be a big influence on loaded in-state classes in 2018 and 2019. Pitino has offered scholarships to Armstrong forward Race Thompson, Apple Valley point guard Tre Jones, Cretin-Derham Hall forward/center Daniel Oturu and DeLaSalle shooting guard Gabe Kalscheur in the state’s 2018 class. Michael Hurt’s brother, Matthew, is a five-star forward prospect with a Gophers offer in the 2019 class.
“There certainly is an impact,” said Richard Hurt, father of Michael and Matthew and co-owner of the D1 Minnesota AAU program. “Kids look at certain things. They look at boxscores. They look at dunks. The dunk that Amir had the other night was amazing. When they’re watching games, you can see who is playing well.”
Oturu and Kalscheur both were in the Williams Arena crowd against Ohio State. The 6-8 Thompson visited with the Gophers after a nonconference victory against Arkansas and came back to see the Big Ten opener against Michigan State.
“Amir is playing really good,” said Thompson, the son of former Gophers football star and career rushing leader Darrell Thompson, last month. “It’s fun to see that. I feel like I could be that in the next year and a half or so. I can pretty much see myself playing like that.”
The Gophers once earned the nickname “Big Man U” when Jim Dutcher had success with local post players such as Kevin McHale, Randy Breuer and Jim Petersen in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Now, Lynch is the first Minnesota native to start at center in eight seasons.
The 6-10 junior from Edina could start another trend of big men from the state playing for the Gophers. He’s one of the top centers in the Big Ten, leading the conference and ranking fifth in the nation with 3.2 blocked shots per game.
Lynch, a transfer from Illinois State, was never offered a scholarship by the Gophers out of high school. But he always wanted to be on the team, after watching Minnesota games with his uncle, Kevin, who played with Coffey’s dad, Richard, on Sweet 16 and Elite Eight teams in 1989 and 1990.
“It’s cool to be able to say we have family members who were part of a good team here and now we are also creating one of our better teams in recent years,” Lynch said. “Amir and I are always trying to get some of the guys locally who we know and grew up with to come here.”
Pitino adds four-star New York City point guard Isaiah Washington and New Jersey shooting guard Jamir Harris for next season. But the Gophers didn’t land any of the six offered Class of 2017 local players.
But this season’s rise, with Coffey and Lynch leading the way, could help Pitino have more success with future in-state classes.
“Now I think the local guys and the recruits and everybody can say, ‘OK, this is how they envision playing. This is where I see myself fitting in,’ ” Pitino said.
For Coffey, it’s been a neat ride so far to see local fans cheering for the Gophers again.
“Just the year we’re having so far, it feels good,” he said. “To see packed houses and a lot fans coming to watch us play feels good.”