MINNEAPOLIS — When a new coaching staff at UW-Milwaukee was putting together a recruiting strategy in 1999, the Twin Cities were among the areas designated for exploration.
Bo Ryan had toyed with the idea of going into Minnesota during his legendary run at UW-Platteville before deciding it wasn’t worth the time and effort. After all, a player from Minneapolis would have to pass by four other Division III programs in the Pioneers’ conference — UW-River Falls, UW-Stout, UW-Eau Claire and UW-La Crosse — before they even arrived in Platteville.
Now that he was running a mid-major program at college basketball’s highest level, Ryan was intrigued by the idea of mining for talent in a border state with only one NCAA Division I program. He assigned one of his assistants, Greg Gard, to get started on that process.
Gard didn’t have enough time to make an impact on that front, at least for Milwaukee. After two seasons with the Panthers, Ryan left to take over the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball program and brought along Gard for what turned out to be a glorious ride.
Those two recruiting cycles in Milwaukee netted a grand total of zero scholarship players and one walk-on from the Twin Cities. But Gard considers it an important first step that is still paying dividends today for the program he inherited from Ryan.
“I had a chance to go up there and spend multiple-day segments and meet people and get a chance to know the lay of the land and connect with people that were the prominent people,” Gard said. “It was a good starting point, but it has been 20 years of relationship-building that’s allowed it to evolve.”
When Gard and the No. 19 Badgers (16-6, 8-3 Big Ten) take on Minnesota (16-6, 6-5) tonight at Williams Arena, two-fifths of their starting lineup will be made up of Minnesota natives: sophomore guard Brad Davison and sophomore forward Nate Reuvers.
Starting with Ryan’s first full class in 2002, UW has signed 53 full-scholarship players over 18 recruiting cycles. Ten of those players — almost 20 percent — are from Minnesota. The only state with more is, of course, Wisconsin with 16.
That Minnesota total doesn’t include UW walk-ons Joe Hedstrom, who is redshirting this season as a true freshman and will go on scholarship in 2019-20, and Walt McGrory. But it does include Tyler Wahl, a Minnesota product who will arrive in Madison this summer and, as of now, is the only member of UW’s 2019 recruiting class.
Wahl plays at Lakeville North High School, the same school that produced Reuvers. Both players picked the Badgers over scholarship offers from Minnesota, among others.
John Oxton, Reuvers’ and Wahl’s coach at the powerhouse program in a suburb south of Minneapolis, was asked why he believes UW has had so much success recruiting that area over the years.
“That’s a good question,” Oxton said. “Really, I can only speak for our school and our program. I just think that in the case of Nathan and Tyler, Wisconsin was very appealing because I think in a lot of ways it’s similar to what our program represents. Just kind of hard-working, blue-collar kind of guys that are very versatile. I just feel like the Wisconsin style is something that our kids kind of gravitate towards.”
As the executive director of Howard Pulley, a blue-blood AAU program in Minnesota, Rene Pulley was among the first people Gard contacted in the state.
While he doesn’t remember his initial introduction to Gard, Pulley does recall those early days in general.
“He spent a lot of time up here in Minnesota,” Pulley said of Gard, who’s in his fourth season as UW’s coach. “So he built a lot of relationships up here and I think that put him in good with the high school coaches and a lot of the kids here. He was a familiar face.”
Gard’s breakthrough moment came in the 2003 class when he landed guard Kammron Taylor out of Minneapolis North. Gard calls Taylor, the first of four players UW pulled from the Pulley program, “a door opener.”
Taylor, who started 79 games over his final three seasons, finished with more than 1,400 points and was a second-team All-Big Ten pick as a senior in 2006-07.
The season after Taylor wrapped up his career, Jon Leuer arrived from Orono. He started 68 games at UW, scored more than 1,200 points, was a first-team All-Big Ten selection as a senior in 2010-11 and is now in his eighth season in the NBA.
The next recruiting cycle after Leuer’s class produced Jordan Taylor (Benilde St. Margaret’s) and Jared Berggren (Princeton). Mike Bruesewitz (Sibley) arrived a year later.
Jordan Taylor, who was a second-team All-American as a junior, is the Badgers’ all-time leader in assist-to-turnover ratio. He’s also second in assists and ninth in scoring at UW.
Of the nine Minnesota products who have completed their careers or are still playing, seven turned out to be multi-season starters. Riley Dearring and Alex Illikainen are the only players who don’t fit in that category.
“You’re only as good as your track record of success,” Gard said. “That goes a long way. The guys that have come here have had really good careers.”
‘Ride the wave’
After serving as UW’s lead recruiter in Minnesota for 15 years, Gard handed off that responsibility to assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft. It’s now Krabbenhoft’s job to make sure the pipeline from the Twin Cities to Madison keeps flowing.
When the Badgers venture into new recruiting areas, particularly those outside the Midwest, they often encounter players who need an introductory lesson on the program. That’s not the case in Minnesota, where young players grow up watching the Big Ten.
“The program speaks for itself,” said Davison, who is from Maple Grove. “Growing up in Minnesota, everyone’s a big fan of the Big Ten. Over the years, the last 20 years, Wisconsin always seems to be up top. They play the game the right way, they’re always competitive, you always see them in the NCAA tournament. That’s very intriguing to players from all over, but especially players from the Midwest and from Minnesota.”
Krabbenhoft helped close the deal with Davison and Reuvers. He served as the lead recruiter in UW’s pursuit of Wahl.
Now, he’s trying to add more Minnesota products to the Badgers’ roster.
The group of players UW is chasing includes 2020 forwards Ben Carlson (East Ridge) and Dawson Garcia (Prior Lake) along with 2020 guard Kerwin Walton (Hopkins). Two highly touted younger players on UW’s radar are 2021 forward Kendall Brown (East Ridge) and 2022 guard Tre Holloman (Cretin-Durham Hall).
The competition for those players and other talent in Minnesota will be stiff. Duke has had a presence in the area recently, landing siblings Tyus and Tre Jones along with Gary Trent Jr. Kansas is considered the front-runner for Matthew Hurt, a blue-chip forward out of Rochester.
Plus, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino has had some in-state success of late. His roster includes four players from the Pulley program: junior Amir Coffey and a talented trio of freshmen that includes starters Gabe Kalscheur and Daniel Oturu.
“That state, just like every other state, goes through cycles,” Gard said. “There are going to be a lot in some years, there are going to be very few in some years. There are going to be years where you have a lot of good fits, there are going to be years where there are not good fits. You just ride the wave.”
That’s what Gard has been doing for nearly two decades. In Krabbenhoft, he has a lieutenant who grew up in South Dakota but played in the Pulley program and knows the lay of the land in Minnesota.
Can UW keep its momentum going in that state? Oxton wouldn’t bet against it.
“They have a way that they want to play and they’re looking for players that fit that style,” he said, “and I think they do that very well.”