Pitino’s six recruits could shape program

Richard Pitino’s recruits may not be highly ranked, but they fit his system.

Minnesota men's basketball head coach Richard Pitino watches his team play Thursday, April 3, 2014, at the National Invitation Tournament finals at Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y.

Bridget Bennett

Minnesota men’s basketball head coach Richard Pitino watches his team play Thursday, April 3, 2014, at the National Invitation Tournament finals at Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y.

Jace Frederick

Richard Pitino accentuated the importance of recruiting from the moment he stepped foot on campus.

The Gophers men’s head basketball coach punctuated his first season at the helm with an NIT title, but he knows future recruiting efforts are going to make the difference in the program turnaround.

“I think the one thing you do [as a head coach], 95 percent of the time, is you wake up and think about recruiting,” Pitino said before the season. “It’s the lifeblood of our program. I know the great coaches … have great players.”

If recruiting classes were judged on sheer numbers alone, Pitino’s first full class — complete with six fresh faces — would be considered the crème de la crème.

That’s not the way recruiting classes are judged, though, as they’re often deemed successful in two phases — initial rankings and the impact those recruits have on a program.

While the former criterion is considered important, it goes out the window the moment a recruit touches the college hardwood. Instead, the latter is what defines the success of a coach and a program.

That’s good news for Pitino because of the six players he’s brought in for next year — Josh Martin, Gaston Diedhiou, Bakary Konate, Nate Mason, junior college guard Carlos Morris and Illinois State transfer Zach Lofton — none achieved a higher rating than three stars by Rivals.com.

Pitino, however, doesn’t seem to recruit by rankings. He recruits by need and fit.

“I think coaches know what type of players they need for their system [for the] success of the team next season,” said Konate, an athletic center who has a fairly good chance to slide right into the fast-paced system next year.

Pitino has already shown he has the knowledge for what type of player works best with his style of play.

He brought in four players before the start of last season, all of whom played important roles in the first year of the Richard Pitino era. DeAndre Mathieu and Joey King started, and Malik Smith and Daquein McNeil made significant contributions at different points throughout the season.

Martin, who could to play one of the two forward positions next year, said it was encouraging to watch the Gophers win the NIT title in March.

“They showed that they were a force to be reckoned with,” he said. “It was cool to see them end with a championship.”

If this year’s recruiting class has a similar impact to the one Pitino’s makeshift class from a year ago had, Minnesota could be fully equipped to build on last season’s success.

That said, the influence of this class will spread far beyond next season. Next year, the team will feature a senior-laden core, but it’s not a far-fetched possibility that two years down the road, the starting lineup could consist of five of these six recruits.

“There are a lot of great opportunities because we’re going to be old, so that means you lose a lot of guys,” Pitino said. “It’s great for recruits. It’s scary for me.”

Martin said he liked the idea of a six-man recruiting class and the idea of having five players to grow alongside.

“We’re going to be able to become a family early,” he said.

That “family” has been downplayed in national recruiting rankings but has an opportunity to determine the path of Gophers basketball in the years to come — an opportunity Konate said he appreciates.

“I am humbled and honored to be a part of the beginning of a great tradition under Coach Pitino,” Konate said.

It’s a tradition that will be largely molded by the six players that arrive on campus over the summer.