MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It’s a unique time for boys high school basketball in Minnesota as the in-state talent seems to get more elite every year.
I’m not sure it will ever get to the level that’s out on the east coast, but the brand that’s on display right now on courts throughout the state might be the strongest it’s ever been. A lot of that credit goes to summer AAU programs that encourage kids to play more in the offseason and get seen by college coaches.
It’s also just as frustrating for University of Minnesota fans since none of them is staying in-state. The latest case is that of the “Big 3” with Tyus Jones, Reid Travis and Rashad Vaughn. I’m not sure there will ever be a prep class again where three players from the Twin Cities will be as highly touted, and deservedly-so, as those three. All three have consistently been ranked by recruiting outlets among the top-40 players in the nation. Jones is the No. 1 point guard in the country, Vaughn might be the best shooting guard and Travis is one of the best power forwards in the country.
All three took their talents to the national stage last summer against the country’s top prep stars and more than held their own. It makes it even more important for the Gophers basketball program, the only Division I program in the state, to keep that elite talent in-house. Between Jones, Travis and Vaughn, Gophers fans had hopes that at least one of them would stay home and play for the Maroon and Gold. That’s far from reality,
This year can be thought of as an exception to that rule that it’s a must top keep your top talent in-state. The U of M let Tubby Smith go after the Gophers got to the NCAA Tournament last March and won their first game there in his six-year tenure. They brought in Richard Pitino, who is known as a fearless recruiter, to replace him. But Pitino had six months to form relationships with the state’s top players that other coaches had at least two years for.
Vaughn left Minnesota and opted to play his final prep season in at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas so he could consistently face the top talent in the country. Last week, Vaughn posted his final five college choices on Twitter. They are Kansas, Kentucky, Iowa State, North Carolina and UNLV. The schools he crossed off his list were Minnesota and Baylor. He’s one of the most dynamic shooting guards to have ever played high school basketball in Minnesota, but the idea that he would’ve stayed home to play for the Gophers is at best far-fetched.
Vaughn has publicly stated his interest is in playing one season of college basketball, and assuming he stays healthy, moving onto the NBA. Ironically, the last Gophers player to be drafted and play in the NBA played one season with the Gophers. Kris Humphries led the 2003-2004 Big 10 in scoring and rebounding as a freshman for the Gophers.
Travis had the attention of Gophers fans on the day of the program’s season opener this year as he prepared to announce his college choice. He was reportedly down to Minnesota and Stanford, with Duke in the mix as well. That same week, he took in a Gophers exhibition game at Williams Arena and lives just blocks away from the campus. He announced after a day of classes at DeLaSalle in front of his friends, family, coaches and teammates that he would be headed to Stanford. In the coming days, he signed a letter of intent to make it official.
It was one that hurt Gophers’ fans because he seemed the most logical of the three to stay home. He can score, rebound, shoot and defend at the power forward spot. He would’ve been an immediate starter as a freshman, barring injury.
A few weeks later, Jones made his announcement in front of his friends, family and team. He, at best, was also a longshot to attend Minnesota but always kept the Gophers in consideration. The problem was his best childhood friend, who Jones had vowed to play with in college, wasn’t considering Minnesota. So at the same time on ESPN, Jones and his friend put on Duke hats to announce their choice. Jones is the best Minnesota high school point guard since Khalid El-Amin, and is a lock to be Mr. Basketball this year.
It’s disappointing that none of the “Big 3” will wear a Gophers uniform, but with the transition in Dinkytown with Pitino it was to be expected. The optimist sees that Pitino and his staff immediately recruited the east coast and got interest from some of the top players out there. He also has the attention of several top local players for 2015, a list that includes Alex Illikainen of Grand Rapids, Jarvis Johnson of DeLaSalle and Henry Ellenson of Rice Lake, Wis., whose older brother Wally currently plays for the Gophers.
Right now, there’s one player on the Gophers roster from Minnesota. Joey King is from Eagan and played at Eastview. He started his college career at Drake University before coming home to play for the Gophers to be closer to family.
If Pitino can sell the top local players on staying in Minnesota and building the Gophers program, the future is bright. We’ll know by this time next year if that’s the case.