St. Thomas men's basketball made its Division I debut last year with a 10-win season, but Tommies coach Johnny Tauer knew the talent that could jump-start his program was on the way.
Tauer and his coaching staff call their current freshmen "founding fathers," since they're the first full class after the official move from Division III last year.
Minnesotans Ahjany Lee, Kendall Blue and Carter Bjerke and Wisconsin native Andrew Rohde arrived on campus this summer as the No. 1 recruiting class in the Summit League.
"I think it has the potential to be a really special group," Tauer said. "All of them come as really decorated high school players and they're really good students and people."
Some 2022 recruiting rankings had the Tommies ranked in the top 60 nationally, even ahead of some Big Ten schools. St. Thomas landed some players who were recruited by high-major programs.
"It's really a blessing to be able to play for the hometown school where my family can come see me," said Blue, a former East Ridge star. "I'm just really focused on being a founding father during this process they're going through. I just wanted to be a part of it."
The Tommies finished 10-20 (4-14 in league play) in their first D-I season in 2021-22, but the influx of talent could mean steady improvement. They're not eligible for the NCAA tournament until 2025-26, per an NCAA rule that requires a waiting period for schools who climb to D-I, but they can now play in the Summit League tourney.
"All of those guys have their moments," fifth-year senior guard Riley Miller said of the newcomers. "Andrew Rohde is really good with the ball and can score. Carter's already a really good shooter. Ahjany, with his size and athleticism, offers a lot defensively. Through these six weeks in the summer, they've all grown a lot."
Lee, who won a Minnesota Class 3A title last season with Totino-Grace, is arguably the highest-rated recruit in team history. The former top-100 prospect in the 2022 class was offered by the Gophers, Iowa, and Kansas.
Immediate playing time and the chance to stay close to home were major factors in Lee's decision, but he's also grateful to reunite with players who were part of the D1 Minnesota AAU program.
"I decided to come because it's where I really wanted to be and loved it here," Lee said. "But Carter and I played on the same AAU team last summer. And Kendall was on the top team. When I saw Carter committed, I was like, we clicked so well. In my opinion, we were the best two-man [inside] duo in the Midwest. Getting to play with him at the next level was something big."
Lee's length and athleticism should make him a rim protector. Bjerke, who led Wayzata to a Class 4A runner-up finish, is already one of the team's best three-point shooters.
"It's really a dream come true for me," Bjerke said. "My mom and my dad both came here. My high school coach [Bryan Schnettler] played for coach Tauer. So I had that connection as well. I'm super comfortable with this place and exited to be here."
Lee and Bjerke, both 6-9, have the potential to develop into a formidable frontcourt tandem. Blue and Rohde, both 6-6, are showing signs of being St. Thomas' future backcourt.
Rohde, who led Brookfield Central to a runner-up state finish in Wisconsin, was the last to commit in the 2022 class. The Mr. Basketball finalist felt something special on his official visit last fall.
"From that point I knew it was a real family thing," Rohde said. "I really wanted to be here."
The Tommies will also be bolstered by transfers and Minnesotans Courtney Brown Jr. (Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and Drake Dobbs (Liberty). Tauer, though, has seen enough this summer from his freshmen class to realize his vision of building a solid foundation is quickly coming together.
"This summer has been great for them to get acclimated the last six weeks," Tauer said. "There's a huge learning curve but we're really excited."