MINNEAPOLIS >> When Richard Pitino left Florida International to take the job at Minnesota, he planned to bring a couple of his players with him to help jumpstart the process of reshaping the Golden Gophers into the type of up-tempo, pressing team that he prefers.
The list of players transferring to Minnesota with him just got a little bit shorter.
The NCAA denied forward Rakeem Buckles’ waiver request to play right away following his transfer from FIU, Minnesota associate athletic director Chris Werle said Wednesday. The school is appealing the decision on Buckles’ behalf, but it looks like the already thin Gophers frontcourt is in serious danger of losing a big man it sorely needed.
The 6-foot-7 Buckles spent three seasons playing for Pitino’s father, Rick, at Louisville. Richard Pitino was an assistant on the staff while Buckles was there. Buckles tore the ACL in each knee while he was with the Cardinals, then transferred to FIU when Richard Pitino was hired there.
Buckles sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules and rehabbed his latest knee injury. When FIU was hit with a postseason ban for academic issues under previous head coach Isiah Thomas, Buckles and Pitino hoped the NCAA would grant a waiver that would allow him to play at Minnesota right away.
That argument worked for guard Malik Smith, who followed Pitino to Minnesota. Buckles had signed a tender and been admitted to Minnesota, but had yet to enroll while awaiting the NCAA’s decision.
Now that the NCAA has declined to grant Buckles the waiver, he finds himself in a bit of a no-man’s land as the school year begins. If the he loses his appeal, Buckles would either have to sit out this season — his fifth in college — and get a different waiver from the NCAA for a sixth season of eligibility, or go back to Florida International to play this season.
Without Buckles, the Gophers have Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker as their only two true big men on the roster, a lack of depth that is of particular concern in the rough and tumble Big Ten. Pitino does have one scholarship open if he wants to pursue another option, but finding a quality player this late in the process could prove challenging.