Ben Johnson has an unusually tall task ahead. In his first season as Minnesota’s head coach — or anyone’s head coach — he must prepare a team of newcomers to play Big Ten basketball.
Hired as the Gophers’ coach last March, Johnson lost all but one player to the transfer portal and slowly built his first roster with three freshmen and a large handful of transfers from other universities — none of them from a Power 5 conference.
“The good part is that I’ve got a lot of guys who are trying to prove themselves, that they’re more than capable — which I believe — of playing at this level,” Johnson said after the team’s first practice of the season.
But Johnson isn’t making any promises he can’t keep. In his first media session of the season, he stressed a focus on growth for a team that welcomes 13 new players, 11 of whom played college basketball at different levels last season
“It’s different. We knew going into it (that) it was going to be like this,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t be happier with the group of guys that we’ve got, and I tell them all the time I don’t care where we’re ranked, I don’t care what people are going to say. I know it’s not going to be easy.”
Jamison Battle, a 6-foot-7 sophomore from Robbinsdale who played last season at George Washington, is one of several Minnesotans returning to play Big Ten basketball for the Gophers. Will Ramberg of Grand Marais played at McGill in Montreal; Sean Sutherlin of New Brighton transferred from New Hampshire; and Parker Fox was a Division II All-American at Northern State in South Dakota.
Fox, a 6-foot-9 forward, will miss the season after knee surgery. So will Isaiah Ihnen, a 6-9 junior who played sparingly for the Gophers last season. That will put something of a burden on the team’s lone returner, Eric Curry, who last spring said he was “at peace with not playing basketball.”
Curry battled through two major knee surgeries in five seasons with the Gophers and was ready to become a graduate assistant coach before Johnson — who recruited Curry as an assistant under Richard Pitino — was hired. The 6-9 center was easily the biggest player on the floor during a half hour of practice open to the media on Tuesday.
“Now it’s our job to figure out ways to get him through the season,” Johnson said. “I told him, ‘The days that you’re good to go, let’s go. If there are days where you’ve got to pull back a little and you can’t go, I’m good with that.’ That’s just the reality of what it is.”
Freshman Treyton Thompson, a 6-11 big from Glenwood, and Charlie Daniels, a 6-9 post player from Stephen F. Austin, are the front-runners to play behind Curry. Seniors Eylijah Stephens, Danny Ogele and Luke Lowe are from Division I programs Lafayette, Navy and William & Mary, respectively.
“If you really peel it back, I’ve got two guys that have played — quote/unquote — high major basketball,” Johnson said.
Virtually all of the Gophers’ best players from last season, from point guard Marcus Carr (Texas) to center Liam Robbins (Vanderbilt), entered the transfer portal after Pitino was fired on March 15. Minnesota was ranked as high as No. 16 after victories over Top-10 teams from Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan but was decimated late by injuries and limped to a 6-14 Big Ten finish.
This season will likely be a challenge from the start, and no one knows that better than Johnson, who graduated from DeLaSalle and played at Northwestern and Minnesota before becoming an assistant at Texas-Pan American, Northern Iowa, Nebraska, his alma mater and Xavier.
The Gophers open their season Nov. 1 against Concordia-St. Paul at Williams Arena and have nonconference games against Pittsburgh (Nov. 30) and Mississippi State (Dec. 5) before opening Big Ten play against Michigan State at home on Dec, 8.
“I know what’s coming,” Johnson said. “So, now it’s our job to prepare them every day for what’s coming. Because it’s going to be up and down. There is going to be good and bad. We’ve got to find a way to mentally be tough enough to fight through it.”