Ben Johnson’s 2023-24 Gophers Defying Odds, Climbing Rankings

NCAA Basketball: Indiana - Purdue at Minnesota
Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

After finishing with just a 9-22 record a season ago, Ben Johnson entered his second year as head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s basketball team with some of the lowest expectations in program history.

Last year, you probably could have said the same thing. Minnesota entered the 2022-23 season with 35000-to-1 odds of winning the National Championship. Pretty bad, right? Well, not if you compare it to their 50000-to-1 odds entering 2023-24.

2023-24 Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball off to hot start

Ben’s new squad isn’t worried about what Vegas thinks, though. They new what most of the basketball world didn’t. This is the first team in Johnson’s 2+ years as head coach that has legitimate Big Ten talent.

And they’ve mostly played like it. Not only have the Gophers already exceeded preseason predictions, but at 9-3, they’ve already matched their 2022-23 win total, with nearly 2/3 of the season left to play.

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The entire team is playing much more cohesively, evidenced not only by the eye test, but by ranking 7th in the nation in assists per game. New transfer point guard, Elijah Hawkins, is proving to be a program-changing get for Ben Johnson.

The dudes making it happen

His diminutive stature (listed at a GENEROUS 5’11”) is what allowed him to land in Dinkytown and he’s struggled at times in the few games they’ve played vs Big Ten teams so far, but he’s the motor to their offense, averaging 7.6 assists and 8 points per game, to go along with 1.5 steals.

With Hawkins playing distributor, the Gophers are taking better shots and they’re loaded with better perimeter talent to make those shots. True freshman Cam Christie (11.5 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.3 APG) is a future star, depending on how long he stays in school, because the NBA will be calling for him soon enough.

But other new snipers have had their nights too, including Mike Mitchell Jr (10.8 PPG, 39% 3PT) and Braeden Carrington (who is currently away from the team). All of this talent and production has combined for a completely different Gophers product on offense, compared to what we saw in 2022-23.

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Minnesota currently ranks 23rd in field goal percentage, nationally, and 13th when shooting from inside the perimeter. That’s an incredible leap over last season, where they ranked 258th and 252nd in the same categories.

It goes to show the steps that sophomore big men Joshua Ola-Joseph (10.7 PPG, .640 FG%) and Pharrell Payne (9.5 PPG, 4.9 RPG) have taken, but most of all, how great of a college basketball player Dawson Garcia (18.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG) is.

But even with Garcia nursing an injury that’s kept him out of their last two non-conference matchups, the Gophers have destroyed lesser competition all season, something they struggled to do in Ben Johnson’s 2nd year.

Minnesota climbing up KenPom and NET Rankings

And when you play well and win games, you start to climb up the all-important college basketball ranking systems, which we are starting to see with the Golden Gophers in both the Ken Pomeroy (KenPom) and NCAA Men’s basketball NET rankings.

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When the 2023-24 NET rankings first dropped on December 4, the 5-2 Gophers debuted at 157th in the nation. At that same time, they were 118th in the KenPom. Go back to the end of the 2022-23 season, Minnesota ranked 216th in the KenPom and 222nd in the NET.

But… it appears those dark days may finally be behind us. As of Christmas Eve morning, the Gophers have climbed all the way to 85th in the KenPom rankings, nearly identical to how they measure up in the NET (89th).

It may be early, but the all-around effort, with four Gophers averaging double-digit scoring figures on the season, has been a pleasant surprise for longtime loyal Minnesota fans eager to see better basketball in Dinkytown.

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