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Grand Rapids player Alex Illikainen is pictured in December 2013. (File / News Tribune)

College men's basketball: Grand Rapids’ Illikainen among potential Gopher quartet

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Jarvis Johnson and Sacar Anim, teammates at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis, started hearing the buzz a year ago: Grand Rapids’ Alex Illikainen and Hopkins’ Amir Coffey were thinking about joining them to form Minnesota’s version of a summer league dream team.

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To most, it seemed like the kind of fun idea that goes no further than Twitter and recruiting message boards. “But we kind of knew it was going to happen,” Coffey said.

It happened for the Howard Pulley Panthers, who showcased the quartet of coach Richard Pitino’s top recruiting targets Saturday when they faced the New York Lightning in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League at High Performance Academy in Eagan, Minn.

Could it be a taste of what’s to come for the maroon and gold?

“We joke about that all of the time,” Johnson said. “We know it would be cool playing at home in front of family.”

Of the four, only Anim is waiting for a scholarship offer from the hometown program, which won 25 games and a National Invitation Tournament title in Pitino’s first season as head coach.

Illikainen and Coffey performed well enough on their respective AAU teams last summer to gain national recognition. Coffey already was a top-30 prospect in the Class of 2016; Illikainen and Johnson are top-100 players in the 2015 class.

They all agree that Pitino’s up-tempo style fits them better than that of former coach Tubby Smith.

“I think it would benefit me more playing in a system like Coach Pitino’s,” Illikainen said. “I definitely like the change, but I still had a great relationship with Tubby.”

The Gophers missed on Minnesota’s “Big Three” in 2014 when Tyus Jones (Duke), Rashad Vaughn (UNLV) and Reid Travis (Stanford) went elsewhere. But Pitino has real time to recruit the state’s top players in 2015 and 2016.

Pitino’s first recruiting splash would be to beat out programs such as Michigan State and Wisconsin for Johnson.

The athletic 6-foot-1 combo guard plans to take an unofficial trip to Michigan State this summer and was blown away by the scholarship offer from Spartans coach Tom Izzo this spring.

“It was big for me,” Johnson said. “I really didn’t expect it at this point.”

Johnson and Illikainen will narrow their list of schools after the Nike season is over following the Peach Jam championship next month in South Carolina.

The 6-9, 225-pound Illikainen said he could decide based on schools currently showing the most interest — including Minnesota, Indiana, Creighton and Oregon — but has no favorites. He knows his options could grow with a strong Nike season.

“The competition is even tougher than I expected, going against guys who will be stars in college and play in the NBA,” he said. “It’s crazy. You definitely have to go hard every game or you’re going to get stomped.”

Coffey, a versatile 6-6, 185-pound wing, says he’s needed time to adjust to the pace and physical play in the league. He eventually scored 21 points in a win over the Family (Mich.) to end the Dallas trip and 18 points in a victory over the Jackson (Miss.) Tigers in the final game in Hampton, Va., last week.

Johnson has struggled with his shooting, hitting just 30 percent from the field in 11 games, but he’s trying to prove himself as a floor leader. Illikainen is averaging 10 points, including 27 in a game against Team Scan (N.Y.) in Virginia.

Anim has been the biggest surprise so far, leading Howard Pulley in scoring at 12 points per game. The 6-4, 185-pound guard’s best offer is from Northern Iowa, but he’s hearing from more major conference programs.

Wisconsin had interest until getting a commitment from a shooting guard. Colorado called this week. Pitino wants to see more but likes him, Anim said.

“I talk with (Gophers assistant and former DeLaSalle star) Ben Johnson a lot,” Anim said. “Over the last couple months, I’ve been building a relationship with Coach Pitino. Up until July, he wants to see if I’m the best fit for them.”

The reason Johnson, Anim, Illikainen and Coffey became teammates was to win an AAU title together. But after it’s over, the talk might turn to the possibility of all four playing for the Gophers.

“It’s definitely something we think about,” Anim said. “We joke around sometimes about what it could be like: ‘Imagine what it would be like to bring a championship to the home state.’ It would be great.”

Illikainen admits that would “definitely be a good thing” if one of his Pulley teammates picked Minnesota first, but the school is appealing to him regardless.

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