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Minnesota Golden Gophers: Is Gopher Basketball a Sleeping Giant?

Can Gopher basketball consistently play at the top of the Big Ten?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Minnesota vs Louisville Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Doe anyone remember the days of angst over whether or not Richard Pitino would leave Minnesota for a “better” job? Was he going to take the Alabama job? Was this just a placeholder until his father retired from Louisville and Richard would take over the Cardinals program? Turns out they were all moot points. Pitino was never successful enough here to become the final candidate for another power 5 job and was just successful enough to lead a Big Ten program for 8 seasons.

But now that the University is looking for another coach to lead the program, the question I have is...what makes this a desirable & destination job? What is it going to take for the Gopher program to win at a more consistent level and occasionally give us a memorable season?

The program has a few things that puts the program in a unique position to truly succeed in the Big Ten.

First and foremost, is the recruiting base. The state of Minnesota puts out an inordinate amount of high-major talent every year. There are not dozens of power 5 caliber players every year, but for a state this size Minnesota puts out a high number of power 5 claiber players per capita. And I’m not just talking about the elite talent.

I have no expectation that the next coach to be hired is going to land the next 5-star local kid who is being pursued by the likes of Duke, North Carolina and Gonzaga. Jalen Suggs, both of the Jones brothers, Michael Hurt and the like are not likely choosing Minnesota until Minnesota is a much better brand.

But there is so much local talent out there, in our back yard. Theo John and Dawson Garcia are both playing great basketball for Marquette and were attainable here. McKinley Wright is a likely 1st or 2nd All-Pac 10 team point guard who really should have been a Gopher. Kerwin Walton was attainable before he blew up late in the summer and fell in love with North Carolina. Landing one of Zeke Nnaji or Tyrell Terry, both of whom are getting minutes in the NBA this year after playing in the Pac 12. Jericho Sims is a key big man for a very good Texas team. And a couple kids who have had some success at Wisconsin should be mentioned as well.

And let’s not forget the local kids who did stay. Daniel Oturu and Amir Coffey found their way on to NBA rosters. Gabe Kalscheur, despite his shooting woes, is having a really good Gopher career. Even a guy like Jarvis Johnson, who was a coveted 4-star guard before medical issues ended his career abruptly.

All from Minnesota. The point is not at all about the kids missed by Pitino. No need to look back to point out missed opportunities. The point is that there are a lot of very good basketball players coming out of this state year after year. Imagine a team right now that looks something like this...

PG - Wright

SG - Kalscheur

SF - Walton

PF - Garcia

C - John or Sims

That team isn’t on the bubble, that team is near the top of the Big Ten. Can you also bring in the likes of Robbins, Carr, Mashburn, Freeman? Of course. But the logistics of recruiting the kids who are within 30 min of your office is an incredible advantage. And then you can take some bigger swings on kids you want nationally.

This isn’t a call to “lock down the borders” or demand that we are only recruiting local kids. Kids may just want to go somewhere else, and they have the right to go where they feel is best for them. But the next coach has a huge opportunity to develop better relationships with local basketball community and landing just a couple more kids locally who will contribute opens up so much for the rest of every recruiting cycle.

Secondly, this is a Big Ten program. Which may not sound like much, but this is a fantastic conference. Kids who want to play at the highest level may only have so many opportunities to do so. This is not a program who should be losing kids to Marquette (back to recruiting locally) when we are playing in the best conference in college basketball.

This is a selling point and one that does matter.

Next up on the list of things that make Minnesota an attractive job as well as an attractive landing spot for recruits are the facilities.

After investing a lot of money into an elite practice facility, this program really has no excuse for losing talented players because of our facilities. Much has been written in the last week about The Barn and how it can be a negative for recruiting purposes. But when paired with state of the art facilities for the program’s day-to-day use, there is plenty of opportunity to brand these facilities to recruits in a meaningful and effective manner.

The day-to-day facilities are really one of the best in the Big Ten. The practice facility is more than just a practice facility. It is a total nutrition center, workout facilities, an academic center specific to athletes and an elite building where the student athlete spend the majority of their time.

Basketball, so much more than any other of the major sports, can see teams turn into highly competitive teams in a short time frame. All it takes is one or two kids who are elite, mixed with the right kind of complimentary players, with a coach who teaches well and things can snowball for a program.

Especially a program located in the Big Ten with high-major talent in their backyard year after year.

The challenge is to find the right guy to harness this.