Did We Underestimated Ben Johnson’s New Gophers

Photo: Kelly Hagenson

If you were trying to avoid the first season of Ben Johnson’s Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball coaching tenure, I wouldn’t have blamed you. Only one of Richard Pitino’s players stuck around and even he, Isaiah Ihnen, is out for the season with an injury.

One of Johnson’s biggest transfer portal pickups — hometown kid, Parker Fox, who heard from over 100 schools this offseason after dominating D-II basketball for the first two years of his college career — was also lost for the season to a knee injury.

So to fill his 2021-22 squad, Johnson took his time this offseason and eventually gathered an experienced 6-7 man rotation full of transfers who overachieved at smaller schools before landing in maroon and gold.

Most preseason polls picked the new-look, injury-riddled Gophers to finish last place in the 2021-22 Big Ten race. Even the biggest Ben Johnson believers were preparing for a disaster first season.

Maybe not?

Well, three games into the new era and early results have been a pleasant surprise. The Minnesota Gophers are 3-0 and their most recent victory won them the inaugural “Asheville Championship” trophy. Sure, their early competition hasn’t been world class but that doesn’t mean the success isn’t worth our review.

And when we look a little closer, a couple of the victories are somewhat impressive. Minnesota’s first win of the Asheville Championship Tournament came over a Western Kentucky team that was picked to repeat as the Conference USA regular season champion in 2021-22, a team that went 21-8 last year.

Then two nights later, Minnesota defeated an Ivy League Princeton squad who took down Power-five South Carolina the night before. While it’s true we can’t know what this new Gophers team is made of after a few wins against smaller conference opponents, there are still takeaways that could carry over.

Willis & Battle are for real.

Ben Johnson threw together a pretty good front-end roster during the offseason, especially given how quickly he had to do it and what he had to build from. But through three games, two players stick out above the rest.. Both Payton Willis and Jamison Battle have looked head and shoulders better than everyone else on the floor over the weekend.

After leaving Dinkytown for one year, Willis has returned to Minnesota as a Super-Saiyan version of his former basketball self. The Gopher Senior announced his return during Sunday night’s win over Princeton when he took over both overtimes and carried the Gophers to victory, finishing with 29 points, 10 rebounds and 3 steals.

Jamison Battle could be a star.

Johnson’s other huge pickup is hometown boy, (SO) Jamison Battle, who transferred from George Washington in the offseason. The former De LaSalle standout was the best player on the floor for most of his minutes during the Asheville Championship. Battle finished with a similarly impressive stat line to Willis in the final game, finishing with 24 points and 11 rebounds to help defeat the Tigers.

Jamison can hit from everywhere and he’s big enough and skilled enough down low that smaller defenders can’t defend him on the block. He has a very smooth left hand on offense, both from the inside and out.

OT vs Princeton belonged to Payton Willis but the Gophers have mostly gone to Battle whenever they’ve needed a basket. And so far, he’s delivered.

Tests upcoming

Willis and Battle are the only Gophers to average over 15 PPG. Through three games, both actually average 20+ PPG. They’re also shooting over 50% from the field.

  • Jamison Battle: 41 MPG | 20.7 PPG | .512 FG% | .360 3P% | 6.7 RPG | 1.3 SPG
  • Payton Willis: 38.3 MPG | 20.3 PPG | .511 FG% | .474 3P% | 5.7 RPG | 2.3 SPG

We’ll soon know what we have in this new Minnesota Gophers team. They get Pittsburgh in the ACC/B1G Challenge on November 30, followed by Mississippi State, Michigan State and Michigan to start December.

After watching Ben Johnson’s squad for three games, I feel much better about how that stretch might unfold.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan