I really don’t like recruiting. I’d rather pretend that basketball players grow on trees, or are delivered by storks, who may or may not be sponsored by shoe companies. Trying to divine the thoughts of ever fickle teenagers, or translating YouTube videos into future on court performance doesn’t exactly lend itself to the analysis we try to provide here. Luckily, we don’t have to worry about recruits for a while, and can focus on the much more interesting topic of roster management and succession planning.
Jarvis Johnson committed to the Golden Gophers Friday afternoon during a mercifully drama-free press conference at DeLaSalle High School, equidistant between Johnson’s home, and his basketball home for the next four years. Securing a commitment from arguably the best player in the state is a big deal. Johnson will give the Gophers a ball handler and scorer that has more than a little Russ Smith in him. A bigger deal though, is that Minnesota has filled their available scholarships for the 2015-2016 season, before then 2014-2015 season has even begun. Now Richard Pitino and his coaching staff have time to plan for the future.
It can’t be overstated how different the Gophers’ current recruiting situation is to Richard Pitino’s first two off-seasons, and a few of Tubby Smith’s season’s as well. When Pitino was hired, Smith’s recruits decommitted from the Gophers, leaving Pitino a precious few months to scramble to piece together a roster. Malik Smith, Joey King, and Daquein McNeil all joined the roster, and all played valuable roles during the NIT championship this season. This summer, while the situation wasn’t as dire, Pitino was still scrambling to fill scholarships, landing Gaston Diedhiu (maybe), Bakary Konate, and transfer Zach Lofton who must sit out this season. During his tenure, Smith brought Chip Armelin, Maverick Ahanmisi, and Oto Osenieks, none of whom became impact players, but who did take up scholarships. More than a year before they will play for the Gophers, the class of 2015 is locked up. Richard Pitino isn’t merely trying to find bodies to fill roster spots. He can be picky, build relationships with targeted players, and hopefully have an even better recruiting class in 2016.
Recruiting ahead of schedule allows plenty of time for planning, and putting players in position to succeed. Each of this season’s recruits fill an important role in Pitino’s system, and none of them will need to be impact players during their freshman seasons. (Lofton will need to be an impact player, but he will be a junior.) There is a clear succession plan in each place for each of the five types of players Pitino recruits.
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Scoring Ball Handler
The pure point guard is dead, or at least dying in college basketball. Why have one guard who can dribble and one who can shoot when you have can have two guards that can do both. According to Pitino, “The only pure point guard we have in our program is DeAndre (Mathieu), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.” But even as a pure point guard, Mathieu needs to score, a lot, for the program to be successful. Kevin Dorsey will be filling this role after Mathieu graduates. Relying on a freshman pure point guard in the Big Ten could be risky business. Luckily, Pitino’s system will give Dorsey a lot of help.
Ball Handling Scorer
Andre Hollins has an outside chance to become the Gophers’ all time leading scorer by the end of the season. He didn’t score that many points by setting up his teammates and just bringing the ball up the court. He also wouldn’t have scored that many points if his dribbling and passing ability didn’t keep defenses honest. Hollins is the stereotypical combo-guard, in a good way. This season, he’ll have an understudy in Nate Mason, who by all accounts is an Andre Hollins clone. Mason will be able to learn this season, and help teach and take some of the ball handling pressure off Kevin Dorsey next season. Jarvis Johnson might be good enough to be an impact player during his freshman season, but if he needs some time to develop, he’ll have plenty of time to do so.
Pitino’s propensity to recruit combo guards means that the back court can be on the diminutive side. Daquein McNeil, at all of 6’3”, will be this season’s tallest back court player. There isn’t a true small forward in Pitino’s system. Austin Hollins acted much more like a guard, and even a point guard, than he did any type of forward on the offensive end. On the defensive end, anyone between 6’3” and 6’9” will be responsible for defending opponents’ small forwards. McNeil did this admirably last year. Charles Buggs has the tools, if not the awareness, to be a lock down defender, and with his wingspan, an especially menacing one at that. Carlos Morris, a 6’5” junior college transfer has plenty of size to defend the wing, and the 6’4” Lofton will do the same in 2015. Dupree McBrayer will be a freshman in 2015, and will have the opportunity to learn from two seniors.
Pop-out Power Forward
When Jarvis Johnson decided to be a Gopher, it meant that Alex Illikanen wouldn’t be. There just weren’t enough scholarships to go around. It was especially unfortunate given his combination of size and shooting ability is exactly what Pitino looks for in a power forward. Luckily, depth at power forward won’t be an issue, even with the uncertainty surrounding Gaston Diedhiou. Joey King, while hardly a typical Big Ten power forward, was a pleasant surprise in his first season with the Gophers. His toughness and jump shooting will be valuable over the next two seasons, and he’s supposedly made strides in improving his strength which should also help his rebounding. Charles Buggs, if only because he is a long 6’9”, can play power forward too, and Iowa knows all about his shooting abilities. Incoming freshman Josh Martin is much more of traditional Big Ten power forward. He is big and strong, loves to dunk, and has a bit of a nasty streak. He isn’t a consistent outside scorer yet, but has two seasons to improve that skill. Diedhiou is a wildcard, both in terms of skills and status with the team. If he ends up playing for the Gophers, he’d be the fourth option at the four, and if he doesn’t three power forwards is plenty.
The Gophers will have nearly 14 vertical feet to replace at the center position once Mo Walker and Elliott Eliason graduate after this offseason, and their combination of shot blocking and rebounding (Eliason) and width and interior scoring (Walker) won’t be easy to replace. Offense from the center position is a bit of a bonus. Without smaller back court players and without a traditional power forward, the center is the last line of defense. Bakary Konate will have a full season to develop from a long body with a nice outside shot into a menacing defender that can make guards and big men alike think twice before attacking the basket. A soft non-conference schedule should give him plenty of playing time to prepare for some occasional playing time during the Big Ten season. By the time next season starts, he should be well position to be a successful starter. Jonathan Nwankwo, already 6’9” and 240 pounds, will join the center rotation starting in the 2015 season. The size and strength are there, and once again he’ll be a back up during his freshman season, and will have the chance to ease into his role on the team.
The future is impossible to predict, though it wouldn’t be too far out on a limb to suggest that at some point, someone will get hurt, transfer, leave early, or get suspended. There are hundreds of transfers each season, and more than a few have left for or arrived to the Gophers from different teams. Luckily, the roster and future roster look resilient. For example, next season there are three players capable of handling the ball, and three players who could comfortably slide into a ball handling roll if needed. Because the roster is so resilient, Richard Pitino can fill gaps in the roster before they impact play on the court. In the class of 2016, Pitino to find a combo guard comfortable running the offense, a versatile power forward, and a big guard or a small forward to fill for the departures of McNeil, Buggs, and Morris.