Gophers basketball: Pitino, Gophers study transfer market for a big man
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Gophers basketball: Pitino, Gophers study transfer market for a big man

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Michigan Minnesota Basketball

Michigan's Austin Davis guards against Minnesota's Daniel Oturu in the first half during a Jan. 12 game in Minneapolis.

MINNEAPOLIS — With Daniel Oturu likely heading to the NBA and other frontcourt issues to resolve, the Gophers’ coaching staff has been combing the transfer market for big men.

College basketball teams with post player needs can’t wait too long. It’s like toilet paper rolls in these hard times. You need to snatch them up before they’re gone.

Coach Richard Pitino has to prepare as if he could lose his starting frontcourt from this season, including Oturu, a sophomore All-America, and departing senior forward Alihan Demir, a former graduate transfer from Drexel.

“We are currently looking to add the right piece or pieces this spring,” Pitino wrote in his blog earlier this week. “Obviously, we have to explore all options as Daniel’s situation evolves.”

The 6-foot-10 Oturu hasn’t officially declared early for the NBA draft, but he has begun the process and is widely projected to leave the Gophers and become a first-round pick. Replacing him would be no easy task. Pitino can offer a chance to play alongside Marcus Carr, who was a third-team All-Big Ten point guard last season as a sophomore.

Five grad transfers ranked in the top 10 by ESPN.com as of Sunday were from the Ivy League, including Harvard forward Seth Towns, who picked Ohio State over Duke on Saturday.

Yale’s 6-9 Jordan Bruner and 6-10 teammate Patrick Tape are also both being recruited by Duke. Tape told the Star Tribune that a Gophers assistant coach reached out to him a while ago but he’s heard nothing recently. That’s probably because Tape already visited Ohio State, Syracuse and USC — and Coach K’s likely selling he could replace All-America Vernon Carey.

Minnesota’s biggest target, literally, is 7-3, 260-pound Loyola Marymount grad transfer Mattias Markusson, a Sweden native who has been talking a lot with the U coaching staff lately.

Markusson redshirted last season, dealing with the death of his mother, but he averaged 10.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and shot 58% from the field two seasons ago.

“Minnesota is reaching out to me every other day,” Markusson told the Star Tribune. “We’ve had some great conversations, so I sure have interest in the program.”

Markusson said the Gophers have talked to him about the city, school and his potential role, but “it’s still very early in the process.” He was also hearing from Arkansas, Arizona State, Georgia Tech, Ohio State, San Diego State and Wake Forest, among others.

Markusson’s size would help the Gophers compete inside in the Big Ten, but they aren’t limiting themselves to strictly traditional back-to-the-basket big men. They’ve offered scholarships to Virginia Tech’s 6-7, 230-pound Landers Nolley II and Wichita State’s 6-8, 240-pound Morris Udeze.

With a 7-foot wingspan, Udeze was an undersized center for the Shockers. He played only 10.5 minutes per game last season, with their three-man rotation in the middle. But the Houston native, who was recruited by former Wichita State and current Gophers assistant Kyle Lindsted, averaged 16.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per 40 minutes as a sophomore this season.

Like Markusson and Udeze, Nolley has more than a dozen schools interested in him, including from the Pac-12, Big Ten, SEC and Big East. But Nolley’s most likely looking to play more on the wing, according to reports. He’s a hot commodity after averaging 15.5 points and 5.8 rebounds as a freshman this year.

Udeze and Nolley are underclassmen, as is Ohio State freshman point guard D.J. Carton, who was contacted by the Gophers this month after announcing he was leaving.

Under current NCAA rules, transfers who haven’t completed their undergraduate degree have to sit out a year before playing with their new teams. But Pitino and many other coaches expect the transfer rule to change, allowing all players immediate eligibility after transferring the first time.

So the Gophers are casting a wide net. They need an instant-impact post player, but they aren’t bare in the frontcourt. Junior Eric Curry expects to make a healthy return from numerous injuries. Sophomore Jarvis Omersa and freshmen Isaiah Ihnen and Sam Freeman were reserves last season. Ihnen, in particular, showed a load of potential late in the season.

Pitino would have two scholarships open with Oturu’s departure because the Gophers signed guard Jamal Mashburn Jr. and forward Martice Mitchell in the early period.

The ever-expanding transfer portal could add to the 2020 class this spring, but it’ll be a challenge for the Gophers to add the depth and talent their frontcourt needs.

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