The recent confirmation that Trevor Mbakwe is coming back for his 6th and
likely final season of college basketball has people talking with excitement about expectations for next season. The Gophers return a lot to build on what was a strong finish to the season. There is some young talent on the roster that was bolstered by the addition of Mbakwe. You can't blame a fan for getting excited about 2012-13.
Having a more successful season; meaning at the very least more wins, a respectable Big Ten finish and an NCAA Tournament appearance; is important for a number of reasons. The fan base has been through a lot in recent years and having a successful season and a team that commands respect would be refreshing for those who have suffered through the last couple years. Winning more games would also put more people in the seats which is an obvious financial benefit to the program. But I would argue that there is more than just that on the line next year.
I believe that the short-term future of the program is riding on the 2012-13 season. I am primarily talking about recruiting and the impact a successful season would have on landing some high-end players. Based on timing, a highly successful season could catapult the program to be a perennial contender in the Big Ten for the next several seasons.
The Gopher's level of success, or lack thereof, in the Tubby Smith era has been well documented. Two NCAA Tournament trips in five years, no wins, nothing higher than a 6th place conference finish and a number of high profile transfers out of the program. Recruiting went well early under Tubby when he landed local stars Royce White and Rodney Williams in 2009 to follow up a ranked recruiting class in 2008. But since then the rut of mediocrity has made recruiting more of a challenge and the luster of playing for Tubby Smith, at least locally, is wearing off.
With that as the backdrop, there are some very talented local recruits on the horizon. At least a couple of blue-chip recruits, who may have their pick of just about any school in the country, are right in our backyard. What is needed at this point is a reason to stay home. There needs to be tangible proof that they can be a part of a winning and relevant program should they choose to stay home and play for the Gophers. Translation? They need to see a winning team in 2012-13.
Most of you know the names. In the class of 2014 Tyus Jones is already ranked as one of only 10 five-star prospects and may be the top point guard in his class. Jones is currently a sophomore and has offers from Duke, Ohio State and many others major programs (Arizona, Baylor, Marquette +others). Not far behind him in the rankings is Rashad Vaughn, a shooting guard from Robbinsdale-Cooper. Vaughn is a four-star prospect and has offers from Kansas, Texas and many others (Baylor, Wisconsin, Georgetown, Miami, etc). Reid Travis is a forward at De La Salle who will see his offer sheet grow considerably over the next couple years as well. Winning isn't the only factor for recruits but it typically trumps staying close to home.
Landing one or both of these young guards is going to be a monumental task for Tubby and his staff. They have already been putting hours into recruiting both of them from the earliest date allowed. But my fear is that the lack of actual success on the court will greatly discourage Vaughn and Jones who will end up playing for a program where they will have a chance to be nationally relevant throughout their careers. Winning this year, finishing in the top four of the Big Ten and getting to the Sweet 16 would at least show that winning here is possible. It is easy to demonstrate that we were very good in 2012-13 and will be better when we land a player of the caliber of Jones and Vaughn.
But it doesn't end with Jones, Vaughn and Travis. Tubby and his staff will likely have four scholarships available for the more immediate class of 2013. Guys like Kyle Washington, Matt Thomas of Wisconsin, Alex Foster out of Chicago and Jordan Woodard from Oklahoma are names that could be impact players at Minnesota. Winning plus opportunity for playing time is hard to turn down.
2015 and beyond also have some intriguing names out there. Henry Ellenson is the younger brother of Wally, who will be a freshman for the Gophers this fall, and Henry projects to be a very good player. Alex Illikainen (who I hope does not come so I don't have to spell his name hundreds of times) is a big man from Grand Rapids who already has four D1 offers and he's just a freshman. Lastly, you have Amir Coffey. Coffey is the son of former Gopher Richard Coffey and as an 8th grader he is already demonstrating that he is going to be a very good college basketball player.
The point is that there is a lot of talent out there that in some way or another has ties to the Gopher program. Winning and winning this year will not guarantee our chances of landing whoever we want. In fact it is still an uphill battle for some of the better players in the classes of 2013 and 2014. But I do believe that losing this year when the momentum and talent are there will effectively end our chances of securing higher caliber players like Tyus Jones, Rashad Vaughn, Matt Thomas and Kyle Washington.
Time for Tubby and his staff to put quite a few more W's in the standings and set this program on a path for sustained success. Next year needs to be one where we are in the hunt for a Big Ten title, consistently ranked throughout the season, never mentioned as a bubble team and then winning a game or two (or three if things fall the right way) in the NCAA Tournament. Those are attainable goals that gives this program some attention and at least gives the perception that more is around the corner. Winning next year gives us a real chance at sustained success and it gives us the opportunity to considerably upgrade the talent on the roster for the coming seasons.