Theo John sat in bed Monday night tossing around the idea of playing for the Gophers.
It didn’t matter to John that none of the record three McDonald’s All-Americans from Minnesota in the 2014 class decided to stay home, including Apple Valley guard Tyus Jones, who went on to play for Duke and the Timberwolves.
It didn’t matter that three of the state’s top players the past two years did pick the U, including the reigning Mr. Basketball, Hopkins guard Amir Coffey.
In the end, it didn’t even matter that Gophers coach Richard Pitino’s team went 8-23 last season.
“Marquette just popped into my head,” the 6-9 Champlin Park senior center said. “And I said, ‘This is where I need to be.’ ”
As poorly as things went for Pitino last season, the Gophers still had a good chance to land at least a couple of prospects from Minnesota’s loaded 2017 class — a group on par with the state’s best classes of the 2000s.
The Gophers offered six in-state seniors, believed to be the most in over a decade.
They got none.
Missing out on top local prospects happened to former U coaches Dan Monson and Tubby Smith, too, and Pitino experienced it his first year. You lose some, but you usually get some, too.
The state has four seniors ranked in the national top 100.
“It was a big year in Minnesota this year,” Rivals.com recruiting analyst Eric Bossi said. “And I’m sure they would’ve liked to have somebody. I’m sure it’s something that causes them some concern. I’m sure it’s something that causes the fan base a little bit of concern.”
The classes that follow in 2018, 2019 and 2020 are packed with prospects who are either already offered by the Gophers — and other high-major programs across the country — or will be soon. A whopping 16 players from the 2017-2019 classes have major-conference offers.
Recruiting headlines were made locally at the end of summer when big-name coaches such as North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Kansas’ Bill Self and Texas’ Shaka Smart turned their attention toward Minnesota.
“The most talent that I can remember coming out of the state,” Scout.com recruiting director Evan Daniels said.
Three years ago, Pitino was hired too late in the recruiting process to get Jones, Rashad Vaughn and Reid Travis after he arrived. But Pitino signed Coffey, DeLaSalle guard Jarvis Johnson (who was not medically cleared to play by Gophers doctors last season) and Rochester John Marshall forward Michael Hurt in the past two recruiting classes.
New Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle has expressed his desire for Pitino to keep Minnesota’s best players.
Champlin Park teammates John and guard McKinley Wright, who chose Dayton on Tuesday, said they dreamed about playing together with the Gophers. It was still a reality up until last weekend.
But four-star St. Raymond (N.Y.) point guard Isaiah Washington, the Gophers’ top point-guard target, committed after his official visit Sunday.
Recruiting analysts said Pitino did the right thing by taking the better player in Washington. Wright had a chance to make a commitment earlier but didn’t.
“It’s important to get the right kid,” Pitino said last month. “Obviously, if he’s from the state, that’s great. But you’ve got to get the right fit on and off the court. We’ve got some momentum with good kids, some good players from our home state that’s worked out great. We want to continue to do that.”
Minnesota: Hoops hotbed
Former Minneapolis North standout Kammron Taylor was the first Minnesotan that Greg Gard helped the Badgers sign in 2003. The Badgers, with their 18 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, have now established a pipeline.
From 2007-2009, they brought in Jordan Taylor of Benilde St. Margaret’s, Orono’s Jon Leuer, Princeton’s Jared Berggren and Henry Sibley’s Mike Bruesewitz. More recently, Grand Rapids forward Alex Illikainen played as a freshman last season, and Lakeville North center Nathan Reuvers and Maple Grove guard Brad Davison will join Gard in Madison next year.
“High school coaches, grass roots coaches and AAU coaches have continued to do a better job in Minnesota,” said Gard, who was promoted from former coach Bo Ryan’s longtime assistant to his replacement last year. “... I don’t think it’s one thing specific. The Minneapolis-St. Paul area, being a metro area, there’s a lot more kids focusing on basketball in the last 15-20 years.”
But it’s not just the Badgers the Gophers have to compete with in their backyard. Eight seniors in Minnesota received offers from at least one school in the six major conferences.
Of the six Minnesotans the Gophers offered, a case could be made that only three were true misses for Minnesota: John, Reuvers and Cristo Rey Jesuit forward Jericho Sims, who committed to Texas. The Gophers hoped these players could fill frontcourt needs.
For the other three players, Pitino perhaps either viewed the player as out of the Gophers’ reach, or pursued instead an out-of-state player. With former Apple Valley guard Gary Trent Jr., Pitino didn’t recruit him as hard as his five-star ranking deserved, according to Gary Trent Sr., a former Wolves player. Before the senior transferred to Prolific Prep (Calif.), Trent narrowed his list to Arizona, Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State and UCLA. And Wright and John leaving home can be attributed to fallout from focusing on Washington.
“But I think there was a lot of pressure to sign somebody locally just because this class has been so heralded,” said GopherIllustrated.com’s Ryan James, who has covered Minnesota recruiting for more than a decade. “Even if [Pitino] got a couple really nice out-of-state prospects, there will always be fans watching locals go elsewhere and say, ‘What if?’ ”
When to offer?
Figuring out which player gets the red-carpet treatment becomes easier when they have interest from other top programs. But how do you prioritize recruiting your state’s late bloomer or under-the-radar prospect?
Reuvers, Sims and Davison were offered by other Big Ten schools before the Gophers. That was used against Pitino and his staff in recruiting, interviews this summer revealed.
“If there’s any room for concern [for Gophers fans], it might be that guys like Davison and Sims who were maybe a bit under the national radar [went elsewhere],” Bossi said. “And you had a little more time to work on them before other people came in. Maybe there can be some questions asked about what type of evaluation was done on them.”
Trent was Minnesota’s only consensus top-100 2017 player a year ago, but Sims, Reuvers and Davison are there now. John and Wright are top-150 players.
When Trent and John were sophomores, the Gophers staff made them their top in-state targets. The next offer for a Class of 2017 player didn’t come until March of this year, when Pitino told Reuvers after a state tournament semifinal game he had a scholarship at the U if he wanted it.
That came five days after Wisconsin offered, however, and the 6-10 four-star center committed to the Badgers in May.
Wisconsin also beat Minnesota to an offer for the 6-3 Davison, this time by a month. The Gophers had offered another guard, Wright, back in April, signaling their priorities. Four days after receiving that late Gophers offer in the middle of his breakout summer, Davison joined Reuvers as a Wisconsin recruit.
Sims had a Gophers offer come his way in April, but there had been a buzz about his elite athleticism for over a year. The son of former Gophers player Charles Sims eventually became a top-50 prospect.
Pitino can’t comment on specific players until they sign, but he recently defended the way he evaluates locally.
“When you’ve got local kids, you have to make sure that everything from top to bottom is covered,” he said. “Everybody has got an understanding of what our situation is, where we feel a player fits in. The tough part, too, is sometimes you might not need a kid locally. You’re going to get pressure from people to recruit the kid, but he may not fit your team. There are a lot of variables.”
With only two scholarships available for a loaded 2017 class, Pitino had to keep some local players waiting.
“I always tell kids who are consumed with an offer — I say, ‘If I offer you, are you going to commit?’ ” Pitino said. “Normally that’s not the case. With offers, it’s a small, necessary step. But it’s just a first step in a long line of steps in recruiting.”
Race Thompson is watching how well local players are doing with the home state program.
Thompson’s father, Darrell, was a star running back at the U, and Race grew up watching games at Williams Arena.
The Gophers hope growing up with program ties convinces Thompson to stay home, like Coffey. But Coffey making an early impact could be more influential on the next wave of top players in the state.
“I think that helps Minnesota recruiting with big-name hometown kids going to the U,” said Thompson, a 6-8 junior forward from Armstrong. “Just because everybody knows who they are. They’re going to play right away. So they’re going to help the team get better. I always keep that in mind.”
Pitino has five open scholarships for the 2018 class. So far he’s offered Thompson, Apple Valley guard Tre Jones, Cretin-Derham Hall forward Daniel Oturu and DeLaSalle guard Gabe Kalscheur from Minnesota. Rochester John Marshall forward Matthew Hurt, the most highly recruited in-state big man since Hopkins’ Kris Humphries, has an offer in 2019. Minnehaha Academy guard Jalen Suggs could be the first 2020 player to end up with an offer.
“The talent level in Minnesota right now is unreal,” Thompson said.
Thompson and Hurt, who could be the best players in their classes, are both D-I Minnesota AAU players who are close with Wright. Tre Jones, Oturu and Kalscheur were Howard Pulley teammates of John.
Will the decisions by the Gophers and top seniors this week turn off elite prospects in future classes to go to the U?
Time will tell. But the Gophers will have a chance to show on the court this year why players should stay home.
“Obviously, the fans are clamoring for more wins this year,” Bossi said. “There’s no question about that. I think that’s going to be a bigger story than that they didn’t get anybody out of Minnesota.”