News broke that Wednesday that the University of St. Thomas, after essentially being exiled from the MIAC, will be making an unprecedented leap from Division III to Division I athletics in 2020-21, the first program in modern NCAA history to make such a leap.
While the Tommies’ football classification will be FCS (formerly Division-IAA) and their new basketball conference, the Summit League, is deemed a mid-major, they will nonetheless be adjacent to the Golden Gophers in the state’s college athletics hierarchy. Other in-state colleges like St. Cloud State, Duluth and Mankato have competed with the University of Minnesota in hockey but are usually Division II in other sports. St. Thomas’s comprehensive Division I status means the Gophers are no longer alone, which may have some compelling ripple effects on recruiting across the board.
Let’s take a closer look at basketball.
Four months ago — seemingly an eternity in COVID-19 times — the Wisconsin Badgers won a share of the Big Ten regular season basketball title with a meaningful Minnesota presence on their roster. Five Twin Cities recruits were a part of that team, and at least two more Minnesotans are on the way in 2020-21.
Though Richard Pitino has signed key local recruits like Amir Coffey and Daniel Oturu who have contributed to his two NCAA Tournament appearances, he’s dealt with fans’ grumbling for years as numerous local products have skipped across the state’s eastern border or beyond. Imagine the disgruntlement among Gophers boosters if those recruits were lost to St. Thomas basketball coach John Tauer.
But let’s step back momentarily. The Tommies are presently a Division III, non-scholarship operation making a two-level jump to the upper ranks of the NCAA. They’ll need years to get their facilities on par with local peers, and they’re ineligible for postseason play until 2025 — a tough sell for recruits. And it’s unlikely they’ll be pursuing the same athletes as Minnesota, especially in basketball.
It’s likelier that St. Thomas will be engaged in their own border war to the west.
The Dakota schools that were in a similar situation to St. Thomas roughly a decade ago are now the ones in a position to steal recruits from Tauer and the Tommies. South Dakota, South Dakota State, North Dakota and North Dakota State made the jump from Division II to Division I in the mid-to-late 2000s, and not without growing pains.
They, too, had a moratorium on postseason play and lacked adequate facilities. In many ways, those programs used the Gophers as a measuring stick — and to the Gophers’ chagrin, sometimes a punching bag, particularly in football. South Dakota and North Dakota State beat the Gophers on the gridiron in 2010 and 2011, respectively, representing monumental wins for each program.
In men’s basketball, the Dakota schools have risen to the top of the competitive Summit League. North Dakota State or South Dakota State have won the conference every year since 2012. In the troublesome 2015 season, the Gophers lost to South Dakota and South Dakota State in non-conference games.
However, few would say the Summit teams from the Upper Midwest have sniped recruiting targets from the Gophers. North Dakota State won the conference in March with six Minnesotans on their roster: Noah Christensen, Jarius Cook, Maleeck Harden-Hayes, Rocky Kreuser, Vinnie Shahid and Odell Wilson. None carried the local clout of other recruiting misses like McKinley Wright, Kerwin Walton, Zeke Nnaji or Jalen Suggs, even though Shahid and Kreuser were two of the top three scorers on the Bison team.
It’s far more likely St. Thomas will be battling for the same talent as the bordering Dakota schools rather than with the Gophers. While selling the program will be hard at first, Tauer and Co. will have a built-in selling point: A big-city location with plenty to do for incoming students. Vermillion (USD), Brookings (SDSU), Grand Forks (UND) and Fargo (NDSU) can’t offer the same type of environment with only Fargo offering a population over 100,000.
Last year’s men’s basketball roster at St. Thomas featured 11 of 19 Minnesotans on the roster, but the program will likely need to find other recruiting zones besides the heavily-recruited Twin Cities. Few, if any, of the 19 athletes on the current roster would be fit to play against Division I foes.
It’s unlikely the Golden Gophers have any immediate concerns. Pitino has myriad recruiting contacts out east and has usually steered away from the type of players that St. Thomas might think are attainable: high end mid-major players who would be role players on a power conference team. As transfer rules are increasingly loosened, the Gophers may someday benefit from talented St. Thomas players jumping ship to play at Williams Arena.
If anything, Wisconsin may feel more threatened since they are more likely than the Gophers to pursue two- or three-star recruits who are more likely to stay four years with the Badgers program, whereas Pitino’s top in-state recruits have left early for the NBA. Down the road, Twin Cities targets of the Badgers now have a second in-state option even if they aren’t coveted by the Gophers.
Minnesota’s long-term fear would be a Butler-Indiana dynamic. Long considered second fiddle to the Hoosiers, the Butler Bulldogs played in mid-major conferences for 80 years, including the Horizon League from 1979 to 2012. But after two consecutive Cinderella runs to the NCAA Championship Game, the Bulldogs made the jump to the Atlantic-10 and then the Big East, essentially drawing on even terms with their in-state rival.
This process took decades to evolve, however, and shouldn’t be the Gophers’ most pressing worry.
St. Thomas has a championship tradition, including two basketball titles in the past decade. They may endure some lean years in the 2020s, but from that the Tommies’ presence could provide a refreshing variable to the local basketball scene.