Just before coach Richard Pitino got off the Gopher Road Trip caravan for its first stop in Spicer, Minn., he said he turned to radio broadcaster Mike Grimm and jokingly asked, “Do we have to talk about last year?”
Lucky for Pitino, there are seven good reasons to look forward. One day after the final signing for the seven-player 2015-16 class — the largest class since 1986 — the only question from the public the Gophers basketball coach fielded after his short speech focused on the future, specifically the five freshmen and two transfers who will start arriving on campus next month.
Whether those fresh faces can bolster what many hope will be a fresh start after last season’s flurry of attrition during a lackluster 6-12 Big Ten record remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: flop or flourish, this group of newcomers is one that will stick to Pitino’s short résumé. Heading into his third season at Minnesota, the seven newly signed players represent his first traditional recruiting class — one on which his recruiting impact can finally be fairly judged.
“We cut him some slack with the previous two classes.” said Jeff Borzello, a recruiting analyst for ESPN. “He got a late start with the Tyus Jones-Rashad Vaughn-Reid Travis trio and had to just get some players on the roster when he took over. And even last year, he was getting his legs under him. But now, he’s had two years to recruit these guys. He’s had proper time to evaluate them. The assistants have had time to evaluate them and compare them to other options and really recruit them. So you can’t really make excuses for him anymore if these guys don’t pan out.”
On paper, the group is promising, although the class has fallen out of Rivals’ top 30 team rankings and ESPN’s top 40 (the Gophers sat as high as No. 22 in the Rivals ranking after the fall signings).
Point guard Kevin Dorsey is the program’s first consensus four-star recruit since the 2009 class, when Minnesota signed four-star Rodney Williams as well as five-star Royce White. Guards Jarvis Johnson and Dupree McBrayer are primed to join him in the backcourt for the foreseeable future. Versatile wing Ahmad Gilbert and combo forward Jordan Murphy help with much-needed size and depth at the small forward and power forward spots. And transfers Reggie Lynch and Davonte Fitzgerald, though they’ll have to sit out a year per NCAA transfer rules, have the chance to provide some of the veteran leadership that was greatly lacking a year ago.
In nabbing these seven, Pitino and Co. developed a strong reputation on the summer scene as well.
“They’re much more visible on the recruiting trail,” Borzello said. “I’ve been to three or four events this spring, and I’ve seen them pretty much everywhere. … Richard Pitino is a visible guy at different events, not just because he’s Rick Pitino’s son but because he’s recruiting consistently, he’s showing his face to these recruits.”
One year after losing three of his signees — Illinois State transfer Zach Lofton was dismissed from the team, sophomore Daquein McNeil left the team after being charged with two counts of felony assault and freshman Josh Martin transferred — Pitino is hoping this long-pursued, cherry-picked class brings some stability.
“Normally when you make mistakes, it’s because you rush and you don’t have a lot of time,” the coach said. “Your first recruiting class, you’re not going to be able to make a dent because you don’t have enough time. That second one you have a little bit of time but not totally adequate. Well that third year, you’ve invested a year and a half recruiting guys, now it’s time to build that team.”