The Gophers’ recruitment of Apple Valley High School star Tyus Jones began four years ago, and the nation’s top-ranked point guard prospect for 2014 hasn’t even started his senior year of high school.
Former Gophers coach Tubby Smith visited Jones at his first practice before eighth grade in 2009, which helped initiate a storm of interest around the hometown recruit.
Four years later, Smith is fired, and 30-year-old Richard Pitino is slated to pick up where the 61-year-old left off in the recruitment of Jones and other nationally coveted recruits from Minnesota.
“I wouldn’t say it was a setback at all,” Apple Valley head coach Zach Goring said of the coaching change. “I think the Gophers are still very much involved for Tyus [Jones].”
The premier pool of local talent includes 2014 recruits Jones, Robbinsdale Cooper’s Rashad Vaughn and De La Salle’s Reid Travis.
Minnesota’s chances for those three are considered slim because other potential suitors include legendary basketball programs like Kentucky, Kansas and Duke.
Considerably younger and less experienced than the coaches of those programs, Pitino will try to compete on the recruiting field before he gets a shot on the court.
“There’s a fine line you have to walk because of [Pitino’s] youth in recruiting,” West Virginia assistant coach Ron Everhart said. “You’re so close to the players, there could be a misconception.”
Everhart hired Pitino to his first assistant coaching job at Northeastern in 2005.
“One thing [Pitino] did best was draw the line between relationships by coaching the kids as a professional,” Everhart said.
The departure of Gophers big men Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams leaves Pitino with a lack of immediate depth in his frontcourt. A third big man, Andre Ingram, will graduate in May.
The three recruits are among the best talents to come out of Minnesota recently, but only one — Travis — can play in the frontcourt.
But Pitino’s colleagues say his style of play, which he preaches as a fast-paced, run-and-gun offense, will need immense depth at the guard position.
Minnesota has three available scholarships for 2013 after Pitino signed Daquein McNeil last week. Pitino recruited McNeil while coaching at Florida International University.
McNeil, a guard, will bolster an aging Minnesota backcourt that graduated Julian Welch this year.
The Gophers recently lost two of Smith’s 2013 recruits, guard Alvin Ellis and forward Alex Foster. But that hasn’t fazed Pitino, who’s looking for his own players to fit his demanding style of play.
“I just value the right fit in recruiting,” Pitino said. “If we can get guys to stay [in Minnesota], I think it’s great for the state.”
Vermont Academy head coach Jesse Bopp, who coached McNeil for three years in high school, said guard depth is key in Pitino’s system.
“I’d imagine at Minnesota they’re going to play such a frantic pace,” Bopp said. “They’re going to play a lot of people. It’s going to be very, very hard to play 40 minutes for Richard Pitino.”
Minnesota lacks a true point guard, as Bopp said McNeil is a “pure scorer” and current Gophers floor general Andre Hollins played shooting guard through most of his high school days.
Cue dream candidate Tyus Jones.
The point guard, who’s one of the most courted recruits in the country, has narrowed his list of suitors to seven — Baylor, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan State, Ohio State and Minnesota, all of which have offered him a scholarship.
Some assert that Jones keeps Minnesota on his list to please locals as he dominates the high school courts around the state.
But the Gophers have been on Jones’ list from the start, and Goring said Pitino’s hiring doesn’t change that.
Pitino met with Jones on April 14 and with Goring the next day. Goring said the meetings “went well,” but Jones wouldn’t show which schools he was leaning toward.
“His next step is to select which schools he wants to take an official visit to,” Goring said. “Tyus said [the unofficial visit to Minnesota] went really well.”
NCAA rule changes last summer allow college recruits to begin taking official visits starting Jan. 1 of their junior year, which is 2013 for Jones.
Per NCAA rules, he can take official visits to up to five schools. Those schools will then cover travel expenses for him and his family to tour the program and its facilities.
But recruiting is a process, and unofficial visits are the first step in selling a Gophers program that is fighting mediocrity and has worse facilities than its Big Ten competitors.
First-year athletics director Norwood Teague has a master facilities plan that he says has a men’s basketball practice facility at the top of the priority list. Associate athletics director Mike Ellis said on 1500ESPN this month that the plan’s official announcement has been pushed from April to June.
Pitino said the lack of a practice facility at Minnesota is an overblown factor in recruiting and developing players.
“I’ve worked at places with practice facilities,” Pitino said. “Louisville had the nicest arena in the country. We didn’t get our players because of that. We got our players because of the people, coaching staff and players around them.”
He also said his youth won’t hurt his recruiting.
“I embrace the fact that I’m young. Hopefully I can relate to [recruits] in a different way [than other coaches] — doesn’t necessarily mean it is better.”