What if I was to tell you a slender 6'10" prep standout in Minnesota is drawing comparisons to a young Jon Leuer? Is that something you think Wisconsin might be interested in?
You bet. After a modest sophomore campaign, Lakeville (MN) North's Nathan Reuvers is having a phenomenal junior season, averaging 20 points, eight rebounds and four blocks per game. Wisconsin has been monitoring Reuvers' growth for some time. The Badgers hosted Reuvers on an unofficial visit in September, at which point he got to know then-associate head coach Greg Gard.
Gard has produced tremendous success from the sidelines as Wisconsin's interim head coach and appears close to locking up a long-term contract to become UW's next full-time head coach. A day after the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported on the university's intentions, however, Gard was hopping on a plane to Rochester, Minn., to recruit an area he knows very well.
In front of Gard and assistant coach Lamont Paris, Reuvers carried Lakeville North to a 60-58 win over a talented Rochester John Marshall squad Friday night in a Minnesota Class AAAA section final. The situation had been reversed two days earlier when Reuvers, as a guest of the Gophers, was inside Williams Arena to witness Wisconsin's 62-49 win over Minnesota.
Reuvers showed he was just as comfortable in the post as he is draining three-pointers, totaling 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting. The flashbacks to Leuer are to be expected.
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It wasn't that long ago that Wisconsin was a destination for Minnesota players. As the Dan Monson era was coming to an unceremonious end in the Twin Cities, Wisconsin -- led by Gard's efforts -- was making serious in-roads with two key pieces of its future: Leuer and Jordan Taylor. Before the 2006-07 season had even started, UW had gained verbals from both players.
While Jim Molinari floundered as Minnesota's interim head coach, the Badgers were peaking. Wisconsin went 30-6 behind seniors Alando Tucker and Minneapolis North alum Kammron Taylor, picking up a commitment from Princeton, Minn., big man Jared Berggren in January. Leuer contributed as a freshman on a 31-5 Badger team the next season.
Even though Tubby Smith was hired on March 22, 2007, he never offered a scholarship to Mike Bruesewitz, which he later said he regretted. Berggren and Bruesewitz would go on to win 93 games together as Badgers started in 2009-10.
Smith landed two coveted local players in that 2009 class, but generally looked out of state for talent. His successor, Richard Pitino, also lacked tied to the upper midwest and has followed a similar pattern. He signed large classes in 2014 and 2015 and though each included a talented player or two, only one came from within state borders. That player, Jarvis Johnson, chose the Gophers over the Badgers, but unfortunately will never see the court due to health issues. Meanwhile, Wisconsin grabbed the top player in Minnesota's class of 2014, Alex Illikainen, who played his senior senior at prep school out east.
In his third season, Pitino led the Gophers to an inglorious 8-22 season. And Minnesota didn't just end it's season with a thud, it imploded amidst scandalous suspensions, a dismissal, insult and injury. Yet the high school talent level in Minnesota, like Wisconsin, is trending up once again.
Not a bad time to rekindle things with the neighbor, eh Gardo?
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If Andy van Vliet had been eligible, it is likely that no players from Minnesota would have made an impact on this year's Badger team. Senior Jordan Smith, from Orono, has played sparingly during his career as a former walk-on, while sophomore Riley Dearring, a Hopkins alum, transferred at the semester break for more playing time. Both Smith and Dearring had redshirted previously, a scenario that was a very real possibility this season for Illikainen.
Instead, the former Grand Rapids, Minn., standout bucked the odds and became the only one of the aforementioned trio to see more than 10 minutes of action this season. In fact, he's averaging over 10 minutes per game and has become a trusted member of Gard's rotation. The 6'9" forward's outside shooting ability was perfect for the inverted Swing offense Gard reintroduced on-the-fly to get UW back to basics.
Illikainen responded well to his first Big Ten game. He scored an efficient 10 points on 2-for-2 shooting behind the arc and added two rebounds in a close loss to Purdue on Dec. 29. Wisconsin could really use an encore performance from Illikainen Sunday in the regular season finale at Purdue to secure a double-bye in next week's Big Ten tournament.
While Illikainen appears to be another solid four-year player for Wisconsin, Minnesota is looking to recapture some of the old magic. For 2016, Pitino has done an about face. The Gophers are bringing in a three-man class ranked 20th nationally and fourth in the Big Ten. It features the top two players in the state in Amir Coffey and Michael Hurt.
It is still early in the 2017 recruiting cycle but Minnesota looks like a battleground state once again. Top prospect Gary Trent Jr. is already a national recruit, leaving the Gopher and Badger staffs to evaluate other talented recruits like Reuvers, Goanar Mar, Theo John and McKinley Wright.
In the case of Reuvers, however, there is one major caveat. Reuvers admits he didn't spend much time watching the Gophers this season, as he has little attachment to them. No, Reuvers follows Notre Dame. Seeing as his father and most of his siblings attended the school, it's understandable that the Irish will have an advantage if they decide to pursue Reuvers with any gusto.