Losing a recruiting battle for Minnesota’s top high school senior big man Wednesday came at a tough time for the Gophers men’s basketball program and Richard Pitino.
Pitino already was dealing with criticism for missing on several top local prospects before five-star Prior Lake forward Dawson Garcia picked Marquette on Wednesday.
This came with the Gophers riding a three-game losing streak and a 1-3 record heading into Thursday’s game against Central Michigan.
“That was a hard week,” Pitino said about losing true road games at Butler and Utah last week. “Easily the hardest that I’ve been a part of.”
This week so far hasn’t been any easier on Pitino, especially when he received a call from Garcia on Wednesday morning to say he was not staying home to play for the Gophers.
“It was very close,” Garcia said after he picked Marquette at a ceremony at Prior Lake High School. “It was a very tough decision. I thought very long and hard about it.”
On Thursday against Central Michigan, the Gophers finally play again at Williams Arena after three games away from home. They’ll get a chance to turn things around on the court during a four-game homestand, behind emerging sophomore center Daniel Oturu.
There’s nothing the Gophers have done, though, to change the perception locally in recruiting.
Garcia, who picked Marquette over Minnesota, Indiana and Memphis, decided not to stay at home despite a strong effort by Pitino and his staff to convince him to follow in-state standouts that became Gophers: Michael Hurt, Amir Coffey, Gabe Kalscheur, Jarvis Omersa and Oturu.
Oturu, Kalscheur and Omersa were part of Minnesota’s highly touted 2018 class, but they make only three of 22 Minnesota high school players offered by the Gophers who stayed home from the past three classes.
The Gophers aren’t alone in looking out of state recently to fill their roster. They were among seven Big Ten teams that didn’t sign an in-state prospect in the 2019 and 2020 classes, including top-tier programs Michigan State, Michigan and Maryland.
Northwestern hasn’t signed a player from Illinois in four consecutive classes. Minnesota could strike out on in-state prospects for the third time in four years.
Minnehaha Academy guard Jalen Suggs, the No. 1 senior in Minnesota, is reportedly strongly considering Gonzaga or turning professional after high school. Hopkins four-star guard Kerwin Walton is waiting until the late period to sign in the spring, but he hasn’t scheduled an official visit to the U.
Meanwhile, Pitino signed his second consecutive recruiting class with two four-star national recruits this year in guard Jamal Mashburn Jr. from Miami and forward Martice Mitchell from Chicago. This year’s freshman class includes Tre’ Williams from Dallas and Isaiah Ihnen from Germany. Ihnen’s season debut was vs. Utah after missing three games because of a wrist injury.
“The biggest thing I try to do is to recruit players who fit our program,” Pitino said before Garcia’s decision Wednesday. “It doesn’t really matter where they’re from. Certainly, recruiting the state is important. But it’s also very, very important to recruit good players. Look at football. [Starting quarterback and Kentucky native] Tanner Morgan is not from here. [Leading receiver and Georgia native] Rashod Bateman is not from here.”
Garcia would have been the highest-rated recruit to sign with the Gophers since Kris Humphries in 2003. Now that Coffey is gone to the NBA, former Cretin-Derham Hall star Oturu is the best local recruit the Gophers have on their roster, which includes five Minnesotans, including three starters in last week’s 73-69 loss at Utah.
The lack of local recruiting success isn’t a good look for the program, but Oturu hopes fans focus on the Minnesotans that play for the Gophers.
“Last year on the NCAA tournament second-round team, we started three in-state players [Coffey, Kalscheur and Oturu],” he said. “I feel like people need to start focusing more on the people we have here. Obviously, we’re going to do our best to recruit and get the players who are in high school here. We want them to come here. But at the end of the day whatever happens, happens. We have to appreciate what we already have.”