When former Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino had Marcus Carr, Liam Robbins, Gach and Brandon Johnson on the roster three years ago, he had four starters who had been top players in the transfer portal at one point.
But that was a lifetime ago for college basketball. These players came to Minnesota because of their relationships with the coaching staff and how they would fit into Pitino’s system.
The Gophers would not have had the same success in the transfer portal as the recruiting landscape is today. These days, it’s no longer about relationships and suitability. It’s often more about name, image and likeness (NIL) – and the money that goes with it.
One of the major challenges facing current coach Ben Johnson is that Gophers athletes do not earn as much NIL money as their counterparts at other top programs.
“There’s a gap we need to close,” Johnson said.
The NCAA Tournament showed how important navigating the transfer portal is. All four Final Four teams – Connecticut, San Diego State, Miami (Fla.) and Florida Atlantic – had at least three transfers in their rotation. And three of the four teams had two transfers as starters.
Miami has a NIL pool for men’s basketball of over $2 million. Few teams in this sport can match this, but having a comprehensive plan to help athletes raise NIL money to build a competitive roster is essential.
“It’s a tough balance,” Johnson said. “Compared to last year, (NIL) has probably been more intense as far as conversations between the kids that we’re recruiting.”
The Gophers finished 9-22 in Johnson’s second season, and he acknowledges that any chance of his program seeing a major turnaround requires adding more talent. Better NIL opportunities can greatly facilitate this process.
“When you’re trying to really shake things up and make a jump, (NIL) is a big factor,” Johnson added. “…There are things that I know we’re doing that we’re working hard on to try to catch up and be competitive. Because this is kind of the new wave of recruiting.”
The old-school recruiting that helped Johnson into the Gophers’ 2023 high school class might be difficult to replicate again. He landed four-star Illinois guard Cameron Christie and five-star 7-foot California center Dennis Evans. But Evans ultimately requested to opt out of his letter of intent and committed to Louisville with a lucrative NIL deal in the works.
There was a plan for Evans to potentially get a sizable NIL deal at Minnesota – but not relative to other high-profile programs.
When the season ended last month, Gophers starters Jamison Battle, Ta’Lon Cooper and Jaden Henley entered the portal. Cooper and Henley are headed to South Carolina and DePaul, respectively. Battle would strongly consider Indiana, which is strongly supported by NIL.
The Gophers, meanwhile, continue to build from the ground up.
“Minnesota is in a good place right now, but we’re not going to play the incentive game,” said Derek Burns, co-founder of the NIL Dinkytown Athletes collective. “We’re not going to try to outbid anyone else.”
Dinkytown Athletes is a local platform that helps Gophers athletes with NIL. Burns says the goal for next season is to implement a NIL package for most men’s and women’s basketball players, which would be a big step in the right direction.
The Gophers also have a basketball-specific donor group focused on finding members interested in a long-term investment in the program’s NIL.
“Our goal for basketball is to attract the greatest number of student-athletes for men’s and women’s basketball as part of a package or bundle,” Burns said.
Burns said each participating athlete would sign a 12-month contract with Dinkytown Athletes that would give them access to various NIL offerings set up through the program.
Burns said that depending on the amount of NIL money raised through donations, Dinkytown athletes will try to provide these opportunities to as many incoming Gophers as possible.
“If they go and transfer and those players show up on campus in June, we’ll get as many of them under contract as possible,” Burns said.
Former Pepperdine point guard Mike Mitchell Jr., who signed with the Gophers on Tuesday, did not choose Minnesota because of NIL. He and his parents were impressed during a recent tour of the U’s staff, facilities and overall opportunities at a Big Ten school.
“There are zero opportunities,” Mitchell said of the Gophers. “But it’s more just because I feel comfortable with the program.”
The Gophers showed how serious they were about NIL last month, when they expanded the role of longtime compliance director Jeremiah Carter to oversee those financial opportunities. His new title is Senior Associate AD for NIL/Policy and Risk Management.
“We’re ahead of where we were last year,” Johnson said. “But it’s like anything, we have to keep going. We have to keep improving.”