Tom Izzo: Gophers Could be Team to Beat in Big Ten if Ben Johnson Keeps Them Together

Syndication: Detroit Free Press
Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Minnesota Gophers basketball season may have come to an end on Thursday, when they lost their first game in the 2024 Big Ten Tournament to Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans, though an NIT invitation may be pending.

Postseason or not, though, 2023-24 showcased an improving Golden Gophers basketball program, something 3rd year head coach Ben Johnson needed to in order to keep his job. It’s a lot easier to keep the boat afloat at 18-14 (9-11) than it would have been had this year’s team struggled to another 9-22 (2-17) or 13-17 (4-16) season. And… if he can keep the team together, which is never a guarantee these days, next year looks even brighter.

Tom Izzo thinks Ben Johnson’s Minnesota Gophers are future Big Ten champs

How bright, you ask? If you take Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo at his word, then they could be the best team in the Big Ten next season. That’s what he told media members after beating the Gophers in the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday.

Before we get into why Izzo’s statement may not be quite as hyperbolic as some may believe initially, let’s introduce some important context. Tom Izzo loves Ben Johnson, who has never coached nor played under the Michigan State legend, though Izzo did recruit Johnson out of DeLaSalle high school and when Johnson left Northwestern and joined the Gophers as a transfer.

Every opportunity Izzo has gotten, since Ben got the job in Dinkytown, the East Lansing legend has praised Johnson, as a coach, and the University of Minnesota for having the balls to hire him. Tom clearly cares about Ben Johnson and his career and is more than willing to talk about how bright the basketball program’s future is under the 43-year-old hometown U of M alum.

Gophers winning the Big Ten in 2024-25 not that hyperbolic?

But all of that could be for good reason. It’s quite possible that Izzo sees something in Ben Johnson that we can’t see from the cheap seats. And there is no doubt that, should the Gophers remain together this offseason (and out of the transfer portal), next year could be the best team we’ve seen since prior to the pandemic.

Related: Four Minnesota Gophers MBB Players Receive 2023-24 Big Ten Honors

Every major contributor on roster has eligibility remaining. Older players like Dawson Garcia are questionable NBA prospects. NIL money gives college programs a lot better chance of keeping their star players, who would otherwise leave for professional paychecks, even if they aren’t expected to be drafted to the NBA and are forced overseas.

And the Gophers’ one sure-fire future draft pick, Cam Christie, isn’t expected to jump to the next level after his true freshman season. So, the opportunity is there to bring back an improved and more experienced team with a lot of the same names.

Related: Cam Christie’s NIL Value is Reportedly Up to $10,000/mo; Pharrel Payne’s Rising Too

It’ll be up to Ben Johnson and Dinkytown Athletes to keep their best talent out of the transfer portal and possibly add a piece or two that could put them over the top and into March Madness. Cherry High School (Duluth area) is sending their star top-100 national recruit, (PG) Issac Asuma, down I-35 S to join Johnson’s program next season too.

Add some veteran backcourt depth in Gophers’ all-time single-season assists leader, Elijah Hawkins, and a microwave off the bench like Mike Mitchell Jr, to pair with young stars like Christie and Asuma… there’s no doubt Minnesota has enough perimeter talent to compete with anyone.

Related: Future Gopher Isaac Asuma Posts Near Triple-Double in ‘Border Battle’ Showcase

Dawson Garcia starts the big man party but what about junior to be, Pharrell Payne, and super senior Parker Fox, who still has a year of eligibility remaining, thanks to a bevy of injuries and the COVID year of free eligibility. Then, there is shutdown defender Braeden Carrington and the mostly untapped potential of Josh Ola-Joseph.

Now again, we can’t pretend the transfer portal doesn’t exist. But Ben Johnson has been on of the few losing programs in the country the last two seasons that has been able to retain more talent than it loses in the portal. His biggest loss, Jamison Battle, was paid $150K in NIL money from Ohio State, something that may not have happened if the Gophers were in a better NIL situation themselves, at the time.

We do not know if they’d be able to block an offer like that but there’s no doubt they’d have a better chance now than they did back then, thanks to the rise of Dinkytown Athletes, the University’s official NIL collective.

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