Gophers MBB is Bad but Future is Bright

Photo: University of Minnesota

Ben Johnson’s 2022-23 Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball team, which plays @ Indiana tonight, is not very good. At 1-7 in conference play, they sit comfortably in last place in the Big Ten and show few signs that will change over the next month.

It’s the second-straight difficult season Johnson has gone through, to start his career as Gophers head coach. His in-conference record now a sad 5-23 and likely to get worse before it gets better (more on that in a moment).

Gophers’ Bad Injury Luck

Johnson’s slow start, however, has as much to do with injuries and timing than it does coaching deficiencies. Two of his best and most experienced players, Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen, both blew out knees before the start of the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons. Same players, same injuries — nearly one year apart from each other.

And the hometown head coach couldn’t have picked a more difficult time to take over a job at the University of Minnesota, a school that doesn’t have near the NIL resources other power five schools possess. Not only that, but new transfer rules allowed every single player from the Richard Pitino era to transfer before Ben Johnson coached his first game.

Pitino’s Transfer Portal Exodus

Those transfers include some of the best guards in the country, a position the Gophers are incredibly thin at. Marcus Carr is averaging 17.4 points and 4.2 assists for #10 Texas. Gabe Kalscheur is now at #12 Iowa State and he’s one of the best “3 and D” players in the nation, averaging 12.8 points per game and locking up the best offensive player for every opponent.

And don’t forget about Jamal Mashburn Jr, who went with Pitino to #25 New Mexico, where he is averaging 19.3 points per game as he quickly ascends to one of the best guards in the MAC conference.

I’m not giving Ben Johnson a free pass on his poor start but, for these reasons and more, he deserves patience from Gopher basketball fans. Johnson was brought in because of his hometown ties and proven track record in high school recruiting, both areas in which we’re seeing early payoff, allowing hope for the future.

Ben Johnson’s future is still bright

The Gophers currently have nine Minnesota kids on roster. They’ve come via the transfer portal and local high school circuit. Dawson Garcia, who went to Prior Lake high school and transferred from North Carolina during the offseason, is leading the team in both points (14.9) and rebounds (6.3) per game. He still has three seasons of eligibility, should he choose to play college basketball that long. Garcia is a VITAL piece to Minnesota’s short-term success.

The other offensive force already on roster, Jamison Battle, graduated high school from De La Salle and transferred in after two collegiate seasons at George Washington University. He is averaging 12.2 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, after leading the Gophers in scoring last year. Battle has one year of eligibility remaining.

Both Battle and Garcia will be huge factors in Ben Johnson’s eventual turnaround at the University of Minnesota. But they aren’t the only current Gophers who have already shown promise for the future. The others are just younger or injured.

As mentioned earlier, Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen should both contribute immediately, when they eventually become healthy. They’ll be two years removed from their last game action, however, so questions surround both of their futures.

Minnesota Youth Movement

But it’s the coming youth movement that should have Gopher basketball fans excited. Currently, Minnesota men’s basketball has FOUR freshman who are playing over 16 minutes per game.

At 6’9″, 255 pounds, Ben Johnson says Pharrel Payne (Cottage Grove, MN) is the most physically developed freshman he has ever coached. He’s already averaging 22.1 minutes per game (7.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG), the most of any of the four freshmen. Payne looks like he’ll be a force down low in the Big Ten for years to come.

Braeden Carrington (22.0 MPG) and Joshua Ola-Joseph (19.6 MPG) are the other two minute-eating freshman from the state of Minnesota, Jaden Henley (16.4 MPG) is the only 1st-year out of state player getting healthy minutes. He hails from California, an out of state pipeline that proved very important in the most recent recruiting class.

More Talent Incoming

While the youngsters already on roster are worth being excited about, it’s next year’s freshman class that sheds the most hope on the future of Minnesota Gophers basketball. That’s the recruiting class 7’1″ high school phenom, Dennis Evans is a part of.

Evans (Hillcrest, CA) just missed out on the McDonald’s All-America roster but he’s still the 3rd highest-rated high school men’s basketball recruit in school history (247Sports). The other two — Kris Humphries (2003) and Royce White (2009) — both played in the NBA.

In his senior season at Hillcrest, Dennis is averaging 14.5 points, 10 rebounds and 6 blocks per game. He can hit from deep, play down low and he’s a blocking machine. But Evans isn’t the only 4-star recruit committed to the Gophers’ 2023 class. Cameron Christie (IL) will have a chance to make an immediate impact next season too.

I expect a lot more losing than winning, as the Minnesota Gophers continue to navigate the 2022-23 season. But injury-willing, they should be a different team next season. By 2024-25, they could be a team ready to compete among the top teams in the Big Ten.

Especially if Ben Johnson can find more talent from the transfer and prep portals. Closing the walls around Minnesota high school recruiting will prove vital to success during Johnson’s tenure. That’s why he was hired.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

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