When Richard Pitino was introduced as the Gophers head men’s basketball coach on April 5, 2013, he was already at a disadvantage.
Pitino, then 30, was heralded as a tireless recruiter — which seemed perfect for Minnesota with highly touted local recruits Tyus Jones, Reid Travis and Rashad Vaughn all heading into their senior year of high school.
Jones and Vaughn were among the nation’s top 10 recruits, according to prominent basketball recruiting website Rivals.com, which ranked Travis at No. 44.
Pitino quickly offered all of them scholarships.
But between Pitino’s introductory press conference and Minnesota’s 2014 National Invitational Tournament championship, Jones, Vaughn and Travis all announced plans to head elsewhere for college.
Coaches start recruiting the nation’s top talent years before players actually make their decisions, and Pitino had only a few months to make his pitch to the trio, which he said was “very hard.”
But now that Pitino has been at Minnesota for more than a year, he’s had time to establish relationships with targets that fit his style of play.
“Now the foundation has been laid a little bit,” Pitino said. “You need a good year to two years — sometimes even three — to recruit these guys.”
Establishing early bonds
When Allonzo Trier was in sixth grade, he was already receiving mail from college basketball programs.
In the more than five years that have passed, Trier said he has received so many scholarship offers that he’s lost count.
Despite the immense competition, it appears Minnesota is making a strong push for the 6-foot- 5-inch guard, who is ranked No. 38 in the class of 2015 by Rivals.
Trier said he has a lot of contact with Pitino and that the Gophers want to build around him. Prominent schools such as Connecticut, Kansas, Louisville and UCLA are vying for Trier’s services, but he said Minnesota may want to build around him as a top player.
“That can definitely have its pluses and minuses,” Trier said. “It’s definitely a great thing to look at — I think it would be a great situation for me as well.”
Trier would be a major building block for Minnesota, as Travis could have been.
On Nov. 4, 2013, four days before announcing his college decision, Travis watched the Gophers blow out Concordia-St. Paul at Williams Arena.
Travis told the Minnesota Daily he was excited to see what Pitino did in his first season, adding that the two had a great bond. But that relationship apparently wasn’t as strong as the one Travis had built over the years with Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins.
Travis committed to Stanford in November, saying that Dawkins’ early interest factored into the decision.
“I chose Stanford because in addition to fitting my aforementioned wants and needs, they were one of the earliest schools to take interest in my future and have been following my progress since I was a sophomore,” Travis said at the announcement.
Recruiting to his style
None of Pitino’s six incoming recruits are ranked in the top 150 of the 2014 class, according to Rivals.
Carlos Morris, who transferred to Minnesota from Chipola College, was ranked No. 147 in the 2012 class. Incoming freshmen Josh Martin and Nate Mason had offers from some competitive programs but still weren’t ranked in the top 150.
While Minnesota’s incoming class lacks national prestige, it’s full of athletic players that fit Pitino’s system.
The Gophers ranked just 257th in the country in adjusted tempo last season, per Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, but Pitino said he wants to up the pace.
The Gophers will likely play faster with every player Pitino recruits for his style.
Alex Illikainen, currently the top-ranked player out of Minnesota at No. 83 on Rivals’ Class of 2015 list, said he’s working on his ball handling this summer to play in a fast system.
“You can’t be sloppy with the ball in that kind of situation,” Illikainen said. “To play [for] the Gophers and to play in the Big Ten, I’ll definitely have to be better at that.”
According to Illikainen, Pitino envisions him as a stretch forward at Minnesota — a finesse big man that can take outside shots to open up the floor.
Minnesota has some options at power forward, but as both Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu enter their senior seasons, Pitino needs to restock his crop of point guards.
Minnesota’s system somewhat mirrors Richard’s father Rick Pitino’s high-pressure model at Louisville, with two quick point guards up front who try to generate turnovers that spur fast-break opportunities.
“When you create defense from your offense, your offense is going to be faster,” Richard Pitino said. “I like to play two point guards.”
Illikainen’s point guard on Amateur Athletic Union team Howard Pulley, Jarvis Johnson, could fill the ball-hawking role for Pitino at Minnesota.
Johnson, ranked No. 85 in Rivals’ 2015 class, is an athletic guard who finishes well at the rim, despite being just a hair above 6 feet tall.
While watching a Jan. 22 Gophers game against Wisconsin, Johnson told the Daily that he liked playing up-tempo because one of his strengths is getting up and down the court.
On May 3, Johnson said he and Pitino had been in contact for a while.
“I would say I’d have a big impact on the game [at Minnesota],” said Johnson, who also has offers from Michigan State and Wisconsin. “You know you’ve got to play good defense in college basketball.”
Tyus Jones, who played point guard for Howard Pulley last season before committing to Duke, has been helping Johnson through the recruiting process.
“I talk to him a lot. Jarvis is like my little brother,” Jones said. “He’s got a great support system, and I think that’s really the key.”
Jimmy Whitt, Rivals’ No. 74 player in the class of 2015, could fit in well at Minnesota next to Johnson. Whitt said Pitino thinks he has great defensive potential at the collegiate level.
“I feel like we’re building a really good relationship,” Whitt said of Pitino. “I feel like it’s going pretty good right now.”
Chris Clarke, ranked 104th in Rivals’ 2015 class, and Kenny Williams have also been offered scholarships from Minnesota. The two are teammates on AAU team Boo Williams, and both want to play up-tempo and build a relationship with their college coach.
“I want to get out and run and [have] a coach that builds a relationship with me and my parents,” Williams said.
Building the program
Josh Martin, Nate Mason, Carlos Morris, Bakary Konate, Gaston Diedhiou and Zach Lofton will arrive on campus next season, though Lofton won’t play until the 2015-16 season.
Those six players, combined with the 2015 recruiting class that has yet to take shape, will give Minnesota a lot of fresh faces in the coming years.
“It’s going to be amazing in a year and a half from now. We’re going to have 10 new players,” athletics director Norwood Teague said. “Richard and his staff, they are excellent recruiters.”
Pitino called the 2015 group his first traditional recruiting class, and it appears the players he’s after fit his style of play, just like the incoming 2014 class.
Except this time, they could be household names in the world of college basketball recruiting.
“If you’re going to play a certain way, you better recruit to it,” Pitino said. “You have got to run your whole program around that style of play and that all starts in recruiting.”