When it comes to producing talented big men, the state of Minnesota has long been known as a hotbed.
Jim Dutcher’s Gophers program in the late 1970s and 1980s earned the name “Big Man U” because of developing future NBA players such as Kevin McHale, Randy Breuer and Jim Petersen.
Now the Gophers have sophomore center Daniel Oturu performing at an All-America level.
But not all of the state’s top big men stay home these days. Others are making major impacts for teams across the country.
Wisconsin has Nate Reuvers, whose Lakeville North team lost to Oturu’s Cretin-Derham Hall squad 71-61 for the consolation title in the 2017 Class 4A tournament. Indiana has Race Thompson (Armstrong), who played a critical role in the Hoosiers’ 68-56 victory over the Gophers on Wednesday at Williams Arena.
The reach of Minnesota’s big men stretches well beyond the Big Ten now, too. In an ESPN-televised Big 12 matchup last week, 6-9 Texas junior Jericho Sims (Cristo Rey Jesuit in Minneapolis) went head-to-head against Baylor 6-9 senior Freddie Gillespie (East Ridge).
Sims won the individual duel with nine points and 14 rebounds, but Gillespie and the No. 1-ranked Bears won 52-45 to stay undefeated in league play.
Unfortunately for the Longhorns, that game was the last Sims played healthy before being sidelined indefinitely because of a back injury. Meanwhile, Gillespie looks to help his team Saturday possibly lock up a Big 12 regular-season crown if Baylor sweeps Kansas in maybe the biggest game ever in Waco, Texas.
They aren’t the only Minnesota big men trying to lead their college teams to conference titles. Arizona’s 6-11 freshman Zeke Nnaji (Hopkins) and Duke’s 6-9 freshman Matthew Hurt (Rochester John Marshall) were teammates two summers ago with D1 Minnesota’s AAU program. Now they’re starting in the Pac-12 and ACC, respectively.
Hurt was a bigger name after becoming a McDonald’s All-America in high school. Nnaji is one of the biggest surprises among freshmen in college hoops, leading the Wildcats in points (16.6), rebounds (8.8), field-goal percentage (60.2) and blocks (1.0) this year.
Like Oturu, Hurt and Nnaji are attracting pro scouts this season. They’re already projected to be picked in June’s NBA draft. Nnaji is rated the highest of the trio, a potential lottery selection.
If those three local big guys leave the college ranks after this season, there are more Minnesotans to follow in the frontcourt at major college programs. You’ll see Dawson Garcia (Prior Lake) team up at Marquette with Theo John (Champlin Park). Dain Dainja (Park Center) will help Baylor reload.
And, of course, the Badgers like what they’re getting out of Reuvers inside. So they added Ben Carlson (East Ridge) and Steven Crowl (Eastview).
The 6-10 Oturu has vivid memories of facing the 6-11 Reuvers in high school.
“We played him twice in the same year,” Oturu said. “We lost the regular-season matchup, but we won the state tournament one. They were some really good games.”
Those battles have continued into college. Oturu and the Gophers beat Wisconsin 70-52 earlier this month at Williams Arena, and the rematch comes March 1 in Madison. Oturu will again face Thompson and the Hoosiers three days later at Indiana’s Assembly Hall.
Add it all up, and as Minnesota continues to send bigs to the college ranks, we’ll have to start calling it the Land of 10,000 Big Men.