Stakes Are Huge as Pitino, Minnesota Go All Out for ‘Big 3′

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Everywhere Minnesota’s “Big 3″ go this summer, Richard Pitino and his staff will be there.

The Minnesota coach knows that if he can land some combination of Tyus Jones, Reid Travis and Rashad Vaughn, it will not only be seen as a huge recruiting victory going forward, but it will also translate into winning basketball games on the court in the Big Ten Conference.

And that, after all, is what it’s all about.

So there Pitino was this past weekend, dutifully sitting in the stands watching Jones, Travis and Vaughn compete in the Nike Global Challenge at Trinity Washington University.

The stakes are high, to be sure.

If the first-year coach lands more than one of the aforementioned three studs, it will be time for champagne and celebration in Minnesota.

Even if he lands just one of them, that would be a huge victory.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had three [Minnesota] guys in the Top 25,” USA Midwest and Howard Pulley coach Antwan Harris told SNY.tv. “We’ve had guys from Minnesota be in the Top 100 tons of times. But this highly rated with the skills that they’ve had, I don’t think we’ve had that.”

Asked what it would mean to the state school and the Gopher State itself if Pitino got at least one of them, Harris said: “It would be tremendous to the fanbase to get one, two or even three of these guys. They’re so skilled, they’re so talented, so well known across the country, it would boost the recruiting at University of Minnesota.”

And if Pitino is unable to land any of them?

“It’s one of those things to where the new coach would get a pass on that,” Harris said. “He just got there, it’s kind of tough to get guys at the last minute. But he’s rebuilding over there, so I feel good about the program.”

The situation is somewhat similar to what Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard went through a couple of summers ago with New Jersey recruit Kyle Anderson -- and not just because Minnesota assistant Dan McHale was on Willard’s staff then.

If Anderson went to get a drink of water, Willard and his staff were there. They gave it everything they had.

But when the 6-foot-9 St. Anthony point guard ultimately chose UCLA over Seton Hall and other schools, it was a huge blow to the Pirates.

Where could they go after that?

Pitino is in a similar spot, although it’s magnified by three.

He is effectively waging recruiting battles on three major fronts.

The 6-foot-2 Jones is the top point guard in the nation and made the All-Tournament team here, but is on record saying he wants to play college ball with his buddy Jahlil Okafor, the 6-10 Chicago big man who won gold this summer with the U.S. U19 team.

Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, Baylor, Ohio State and Michigan State are on the list for both, with many observers thinking they will ultimately land at Duke.

The catch for Pitino?

Minnesota is not on Okafor’s list.

“That just means I’m still looking to build a relationship with Coach Pitino,” Jones said. “[Okafor] has a couple schools on his list that I’m not considering so he’s still talking with their coaching staffs and stuff like that.”

Whoever lands Jones will be getting a truly special player, Harris said.

“He’s a great student-athlete,” he said. “The consistency on the floor, the mental game he has is superior to anybody I’ve ever coached at that age.”

As for the 6-5 Vaughn, arguably the most prolific scorer in this senior class, he is being courted by the biggest of names in college hoops: Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas and UCLA, among others.

“He’s a tremendous scorer,” Jones said of his USA Midwest teammate. “He knows how to score the ball.”

Vaughn has talked about a package deal of his own, with Huntington (W.V.) Prep point guard Josh Perkins.

Still, Vaughn knows exactly what it would mean — both to the state of Minnesota and to himself — if he stayed home to play for Pitino.

“I think it would mean everything,” Vaughn told SNY.tv. “I don’t think a day goes by where a Minnesota Gopher fan doesn’t Tweet one of us [Vaughn or Jones] so it would mean a lot.”

He added: “I know if I stay home I’ll be the superstar and the city will love me.”

The 6-7 Travis is another situation altogether. He is being recruited to play both football and basketball.

He recently picked up basketball offers from Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa State, Washington State, Colorado, Lehigh and Harvard.

And while he seems undecided on his future path, he, too, knows the appeal of staying at home to play hoops.

“I haven’t really thought that far, but I would always consider the “U” on the top of my list, no matter what,” he told GopherHole.com.

The stakes are high with the “Big 3,” and nobody understands that better than Richard Pitino and his staff.

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