As Local Stars Play Elsewhere, Gophers Fans Shouldn't Be Upset

Photo Credit: Brian Curski

Minnesota will always be the State of Hockey, and that’s not going to change. No other state produces the amount of NHL talent Minnesota does, and many of the league’s future stars are put in the spotlight during the Minnesota State Boys Hockey Tournament at Xcel Energy Center each March.

But prep basketball is experiencing a renaissance of its own in Minnesota.

In general, it’s tougher to reach the professional level in hoops than hockey simply because the sport of basketball is more popular worldwide and there are fewer roster spots available in the NBA. There is less certainty that promising Minnesota basketball prospects will land in the NBA than there is that hockey standouts like Eden Prairie’s Casey Mittelstadt will emerge in the NHL.

That being said, the last week of high school tournament games at Target Center put on display one of the brightest collections of prep stars since Royce White, Mike Muscala and Nate Wolters played on the Minnesota basketball circuit nearly a decade ago. Between the eight Class 4A quarterfinalists, more than a half-dozen high schoolers took the court who will be going on to play high-end college ball — some with NBA aspirations.

And in all likelihood, none will be attending the University of Minnesota.

The Gophers, thanks to their youth, were not in a great recruiting position last year

This might be bothersome to some, but it shouldn’t dictate how fans feel about the program — or the program’s capacity to have success.

The Gophers, thanks to their youth, were not in a great recruiting position last year. Not only were they coming off an 8-23 season, but the bulk of their roster consisted of freshmen and sophomores meant to be a part of the rebuilding project.

A bad team and a young roster — never a great combination for a recruiting pitch.

The Gophers actually did well with the hand they’d been dealt, securing letters of intent from flashy New York point guard Isaiah Washington and New Jersey combo guard and 3-point shooter Jamir Harris.

In addition, the aforementioned young roster paid dividends with a 16-game improvement and an NCAA Tournament berth. Plus, the team stays young heading into 2017-18. Minnesota’s roster already shapes up nicely for next year with better guard depth, a healthy Davonte Fitzgerald, who transferred in from Texas A&M, and a year of development and maturity for everybody.

To summarize, the Gophers are still in a good position despite coming up empty on any in-state recruits, one year removed from importing Hopkins’ Amir Coffey and Rochester’s Michael Hurt. It’s also possible that incoming freshman Washington, Nate Mason’s eventual successor at point guard, could turn out better than any local prospect in this year’s graduating class.

But Gophers fans will still be sweating out the next four years as they watch the state’s talent disperse — some of it hopping one state to the east to join Wisconsin-based programs.

the Gophers are still in a good position despite coming up empty on any in-state recruits

Minnesota has watched local talent excel in Wisconsin in the past. Benilde-St. Margaret’s grad Jordan Taylor played four years for the Badgers and averaged double figures for his final three seasons. Mike Bruesewitz (Henry Sibley) overlapped with Taylor and was an important role player on some great teams under now-retired Bo Ryan. More recently, Grand Rapids product Alex Illikainen chose Wisconsin, though he’s been relegated to a very minor role in his first two seasons.

Next year, Maple Grove point guard Brad Davison and Lakeville North center Nathan Reuvers will join Greg Gard’s Badgers and face their hometown team at least once per year. While the Gophers made offers to both players, neither came with much conviction. “I don’t think [the Gophers] recruited me hard enough,” Reuvers told the Pioneer Press after committing to Wisconsin.

In Davison’s case, the Gophers didn’t jump in the mix until the summer of 2016 after more than 20 teams had offered the multi-faceted point guard. He committed to Wisconsin three days later.

Davison is a multi-sport star with an insatiable motor and uncanny defensive instincts. He put up a line of 43 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and five steals in a game late in the season. Reuvers is a versatile big man with the ability to stretch the court and shoot the ball. It’s hard not to think of him as a better-shooting version of Ethan Happ once he fills out a bit with the Badgers.

Champlin Park’s tantalizing tandem of McKinley Wright and Theo John also declined offers from Minnesota. John, a freakish athlete with a muscular build and strong mid-range game, is headed across the border to play for Marquette, while Dayton-bound Wright, a fluid point guard who scored 30 points in Wednesday’s state quarterfinal, may be facing a tough decision after Flyers head coach Archie Miller left for Indiana on Saturday, leaving Wright’s future uncertain. Regardless, it’s unlikely Wright would be headed to Minnesota, where Washington is already labeled the point guard of the future.

Then there’s the next tier. Chaska’s Myles Hanson communicated with the Gophers and other Big Ten schools but eventually settled on Columbia of the Ivy League. Maple Grove’s Tywhon Pickford — slowed by injuries as a junior — is also likely to play for a mid-major.

And of course, there is Class of 2018 phenom Tre Jones, whose older brother, Tyus, went to Duke from Apple Valley, won a title with the Blue Devils as a freshman and now plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Tre may follow the same path, especially with former teammate Gary Trent Jr. headed to played for Coach K as well. Jones just hoisted a Class 4A title on Saturday after beating undefeated Champlin Park and shapes up as one of the nation’s best prospects.

The Gophers would be a long shot to land him.

To repeat, however: There’s no sense in bashing the Gophers if they don’t land each in-state stud. It’s fair to want a player of Jones’ caliber, but one must also understand that luring a one-and-done in a culture of four-year players is a tougher sell and not always best for the program long-term.

There are also a finite number of scholarships available and many other states to recruit — particularly out east, where Pitino and assistant Komani Young have great connections and have landed some outstanding players like Dupree McBrayer (N.Y.) and Nate Mason (Ga.). If last year’s team success is the beginning of a trend, fans should be pleased with the team assembled, regardless of hometown.

It’s not as if the Gophers are a black hole for local products, especially when Coffey (Hopkins) and Reggie Lynch (Edina) are both starters and have former Gophers in their lineage.

Minnesota high school basketball is at a point where there is so much talent, the Gophers can’t be expected to pursue all of it. Inevitably, there will be players that slip through the cracks — like Lakeville North’s J.P. Macura, for instance — but that shouldn’t prevent Minnesota from fielding a quality team if Pitino and Co. are diligently recruiting elsewhere.

Landing local recruits should be a perk — not a crutch.

If anything, the spike in local talent gives the Gophers more leeway. They can be more selective with the Minnesota preps they pursue to ensure good fits.

There will surely be huffing and puffing over the success of this year’s graduates at their future schools, but the point stands: Minnesota is in a good position for the next several seasons, homegrown or not.

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