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U State Hoops Recruiting Not Okay

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February 9, 2020


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The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team is 6-7 in Big Ten games, with a 12-11 overall record. Included in the conference record are four road losses by a total of 27 points, including a double overtime 83-78 defeat at Purdue. Often Minnesota has been one key contributor away from winning additional games during the 2019-2020 season.

Sophomore center Daniel Oturu, on the John R. Wooden Award watch list for the best college player in the country, has emerged as a star in scoring, rebounding and defending. Frequently redshirt sophomore guard Marcus Carr is a second force, including a headline grabbing 35 point game in Minnesota’s home upset win over then No. 3 ranked Ohio State.

Often, though, the team doesn’t receive enough help from a third or even fourth contributor. There are exceptions like redshirt sophomore guard Peyton Willis’ career high 21 points in last week’s dominating win over Wisconsin, or sophomore guard Gabe Kalscheur’s 34 points in an impressive nonconference neutral court victory against Oklahoma State.

Oturu and Kalscheur are from Minnesota but the majority of the roster is comprised of players from other places. Gophers fans wonder why coach Richard Pitino’s program doesn’t have more players from the state of Minnesota with such a “stocked cupboard” of high school talent. During the last 50 years both the quality of talent and numbers of impressive state players has improved dramatically.

Al Nuness, a Chicago native, captained the 1968-1969 Gophers and not long after his graduation from the U became an assistant coach at his alma mater. He transitioned after that into a business career and has lived most of his life in the Minneapolis area. He has long been a knowledgeable observer of high school basketball here.

Nuness told Sports Headliners prep basketball in the state “has grown like crazy,” and he gives much of the credit to AAU programs like the Howard Pulley organization that started years ago. College coaches are coming to the state in big numbers, during the summer and at other times of the year, to recruit Minnesota players. “These college coaches are all over Minnesota basketball,” Nuness said.

Former Illinois basketball player Stephen Bardo, now a TV analyst, praised the Minnesota prep scene during the telecast of last week’s game with Wisconsin in Minneapolis. He said “per capita” this area compares favorably with other recruiting hotbeds in the country.

“Absolutely, per capita it does,” Nuness agreed. “I think the thing that has happened in Minnesota is it’s become a city game. Just like in Chicago, just like in New York, just like down in Memphis, it’s become a city game. The kids are playing it. They’re playing it in St. Paul. They’re playing it in Minneapolis. They’re playing it in the suburbs around the city. It’s really taken off.

“(And) the size of kids. We’ve never had this many kids, this athletic, at this size.”

Recruiting was an easy subject to talk about at the Badgers-Gophers game. Wisconsin has probably recruited more Minnesota bred players over the years than any major program in the country other than the Gophers. Last Thursday evening the Badgers started three players from Minnesota and they total five on their roster, plus a player from nearby Prescott, Wisconsin. The Gophers started Minnesota natives Oturu and Kalscheur, and they have three more on the roster with Michael Hurt, Jarvis Omersa and Brady Rudrud.

In seven seasons as Gophers coach, Pitino and his staff have an inconsistent record in bringing state talent to the Minneapolis campus. Oturu and Amir Coffey, a superb guard-forward on last season’s team who departed early for the NBA, were terrific gets from the metro area, but in two of the last three recruiting classes no players from the state signed on for scholarships with the Gophers.

Unless the staff signs a Minnesotan this spring or summer, make that three of the last four years. To the staff’s credit they did sign two four-star players from out of state last fall. The signing of Jamal Mashburn Jr. from Florida and Martice Mitchell of Illinois is impressive for the 2020 class. Pitino’s 2019 recruiting class has two four-star players in German forward Isaiah Ihnen and Texas guard Tre’ Williams. Neither Pitino nor any of his key assistants have ties to the state.

Among the Badgers starters is junior Nathan Reuvers from Lakeville North, and he ranks among the best and more versatile forward-centers in the Big Ten. His presence next to Oturu in the Minnesota lineup would transform Pitino’s team into a much more formidable opponent and certainly make the Gophers a lock for the NCAA Tournament. A wish list of former preps from the state playing elsewhere could begin with someone like Reuvers and go on for awhile. Here’s a sample:

Arizona freshman Zeke Nnaj, from Hopkins, is one of the best freshmen “bigs” in the country and he might be even more effective paired with Oturu. He is among the Pac-12 leaders in field goal percentage and rebounding. Nnaji and former DeLaSalle standout Tyrell Terry, now a freshman guard at Stanford, ranked among the top dozen scorers in the Pac-12 last week. In the same conference is junior guard McKinley Wright from Champlin Park, who finished third in Pac-12 assists last season.

Down in Austin, Texas is junior forward and Longhorns starter Jericho Sims from Minneapolis. His dad Charles played for the Gophers and brother Dominique was a defensive back for the Minnesota football team many years ago. Over recent years the Gophers haven’t had many players with family ties on the basketball roster.

Tre Jones

Gophers fans are resigned to having minimal hope of landing a McDonald’s All-American from the state. There never was that much local optimism that Duke sophomore point guard Tre Jones, from Apple Valley, would play for Pitino and his staff. The same was true of Duke freshman forward Matthew Hurt from Rochester who has played a lot of minutes for the Blue Devils. Now this year Minnehaha Academy’s Jalen Suggs, one of the elite point guards in America and a likely McDonald’s All-American soon, has committed to playing for Gonzaga.

Pitino has a career Big Ten regular season record of 46 wins and 76 losses in six-plus seasons. He has only one winning season in the Big Ten. Two of his last three teams have earned invites to the NCAA Tournament. He is 1-2 in the tournament including last year’s upset of higher seeded Louisville.

More talented Minnesotans on the roster would certainly have helped during the Pitino era. And it’s not always the most obvious prep talents who can turn out to be difference makers in college. Freddie Gillespie, a redshirt senior forward from East Ridge, is a starter and contributor for a Baylor team ranked No. 1 in the country. He transferred to Baylor from Division III Carleton of the MIAC. Minnesota native Jared Nuness, Al’s son and an assistant on the Baylor staff, helped bring the late developing Gillespie to Baylor who now has pro scouts looking at him.

Vinnie Shahid, who played at Hopkins, is a starting guard and impact player at North Dakota State. He has been leading the team this season in scoring after being named the Summit League Newcomer of the Year in 2018-2019. He was also the conference tournament MVP in 2019.

At Wofford sophomore guard Ryan Larson is a starter after playing with Oturu at Cretin-Derham Hall. In high school Larson was a “chemistry player,” making teammates better with both obvious and subtle contributions. Larson might be the type of prep player that could have been persuaded to walk-on with the Gophers with the possibility of eventually earning a scholarship.

Pitino’s teams, even his best ones, have lacked depth. There have to be a lot of Minnesota preps with so much passion for the home town Gophers that they would be willing to walk-on—even though their skills might not be quite worthy of Big Ten scholarship offers. Players who excel in perhaps just one or two skills like three-point shooting, or being tall and physical enough to come off the bench for limited minutes and push around opposing “bigs.” Players with such skills could provide specialization and depth without using up limited scholarship inventory.

Nuness was asked whether the Gophers, if they annually had more quality players from the state (not necessarily McDonald’s All-Americans), could contend for Big Ten titles. “I think they could do that. (But) not every year they would be able to,” he answered, and also emphasized scholarship inventory certainly restricts how many recruits the staff can take from Minnesota and elsewhere.

Right now, though, no Minnesotans are headed for Dinkytown next summer. The Badgers, wouldn’t you know, have two of the better metro area preps committed to their 2020 class—forward Ben Carlson of East Ridge and center Steven Crowl from Eastview. Prior Lake forward Dawson Garcia, who after Suggs is probably the most prized senior prep in the state, is bound for Marquette. Big time scoring guard Kerwin Walton from Hopkins is uncommitted and reportedly considering Minnesota for next season.

Good news? Treyton Thompson, a four-star forward from Alexandria, Minnesota playing as a junior prep in Indiana, has verbally committed to be part of the 2021 class.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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