The kid oozed talent and charisma. Isaiah Washington had a handle — “Jelly” — and could handle. His change-of-pace dribbling and “Jelly” finger-roll layups made him the New York Player of the Year and the rare Gophers recruit with a national reputation.
Signing Washington would change everything for Gophers coach Richard Pitino, making Minnesota a destination for recruits from the coast. Right?
Well, close. Thursday, Pitino’s team will play in the NCAA tournament, featuring three starters from Minnesota. If Amir Coffey returns for his senior season, next year’s Gophers team will feature four starters from the Twin Cities.
Pitino knows his program is dependent on recruiting the coasts — of the Mississippi River and various local lakes.
“There’s been a narrative that we don’t get local kids,” Pitino said. “We’re not going to get them all. We may not want them all. I’m not going to be perfect in my recruitment of all of them. I’m going to mess some up. Hopefully not a lot.
“But we start three players from the state of Minnesota. We have Minnesota kids. And when you’re building a program and you’re recruiting locally there’s nothing you can sell more — facilities, whatever — than local kids having a great experience.”
Landing Coffey, the star from Hopkins, might have been the most important moment in Pitino’s six-year tenure at Minnesota. As a freshman, Coffey played a key role on an NCAA tournament team that earned a fifth seed before losing to Middle Tennessee.
Coffey helped attract Pitino’s best recruiting class, featuring current freshmen Daniel Oturu of Cretin-Derham Hall, Gabe Kalscheur of DeLaSalle and Jarvis Omersa of Orono.
“The facilities are awesome,” Pitino said of the Gophers’ upgraded environs. “The place is great. Winning sells everything. When Daniel, Jarvis and Gabe — who are the right type of young kids on your team, because they love the state of Minnesota, they love this university — they do “The Rouser” ... Daniel Oturu does it with enthusiasm. It matters to him.
“Jarvis Omersa … he’s the best recruiter by far. He tells me every time I have a recruit on campus, ‘I want to be the guy.’ They all chose here because they wanted their families to be here, they wanted their families to be able to drive up from the Twin Cities, go to Des Moines, go to the NCAA tournament. That sells more than anything.”
Pitino’s recruiting has been hit and miss. It always will be. He’s not going to keep Duke and Kentucky from cherry-picking exceptional Minnesota players. Coffey, Oturu, Kalscheur and Omersa are important recruits. Pitino has also missed on entire recruiting classes from the state.
That’s why his current batch of local kids is so important. Oturu, Kalscheur and Omersa could be the key to beating Louisville in the NCAA tournament Thursday. They could be the key to Pitino growing the program. They could become the first Gophers players to take the program to the NCAA tournament three — or four — years in a row.
“Before we got here, this is all I used to talk about,” Oturu said. “I used to tell my friends, ‘Yeah, don’t worry about it, we’re going to the tournament. We’ve got it.’ Now the opportunity has come.”
For kids who grew up in the same locale, they’re all so different.
Oturu is an imposing big man who is developing the skills of a small forward. He could be great.
Kalscheur is poised, skilled and smart, possessing great defensive awareness and a shot remindful of Blake Hoffarber’s.
Omersa is a jumping-jack athlete who Pitino says has not been discouraged by his lack of playing time.
“He’s got great energy,” Pitino said. “He hasn’t played as much as Gabe and Daniel but that’s because of Jordan Murphy, not because of him. I still love his future. I think it’s really bright. He’s got the intangibles from a leadership standpoint better than maybe any kid I’ve ever seen. Offensively, there are things he can get better at, but he can go and compete and battles versus anybody.”
Thursday, the Gophers will lean on four Minnesotans in the NCAA tournament. There is nothing wrong with that sentence.