How will Gophers men’s basketball look next season?
Coming back are all-Big Ten honorable mention big man Dawson Garcia and four freshmen who gained a wide breadth of experience: Pharrel Payne, Josh Ola-Joseph, Jaden Henley and Braeden Carrington.
Ben Johnson can now look at the University of Minnesota men’s basketball roster and say, “Finally.” For the first time since he became head coach two years ago, Minnesota’s roster should have approximately half or two-thirds of its players return for next season.
Johnson also knows he must add “hopefully” to any assessment, with defections possible through the NCAA transfer portal.
Johnson’s first team in 2021-22 returned no healthy players; Isaiah Ihnen was the only one who stuck around after Richard Pitino was fired, and Ihnen had a season-ending knee injury.
Johnson’s second team brought back two healthy players: starting forward Jamison Battle and reserve big man Treyton Thompson.
His third team, on paper, should include: all-Big Ten honorable mention big man Dawson Garcia and four freshmen who gained a wide breadth of experience: Pharrel Payne, Josh Ola-Joseph, Jaden Henley and Braeden Carrington.
“This is going to be the first year where you actually have some carryover,” Johnson said before Minnesota’s season ended in the second round of the Big Ten tournament Thursday. “With carryover in today’s day and age, it probably means you have half your guys, right?”
But next year’s roster has already taken hits. Battle was the university’s second-leading scorer and is expected to forgo his final year of eligibility and try his luck playing professionally. Transfer point guard Ta’Lon Cooper appears to be moving on, as well.
Four-star center Dennis Evans III, the top-rated player in the incoming recruiting class, received a release from his national letter of intent to Minnesota in February, although four-star prep guard Cam Christie has stayed true to the school.
While the portal can rob a roster, it can also infuse one with talent. Minnesota, which finished 9-22 overall and 2-17 in Big Ten play, will mine that vein for veteran additions. They currently have two open scholarships for next year.
During the last-place finish, Johnson worked to ward off departures.
“You are talking to guys about their improvement,” Johnson said. “You are hoping that guys feel that they are getting better. You hope that they are enjoying coming to practice, enjoying all that stuff that goes into playing the games. You are hoping that they understand the vision that you have for them and why they can help our program become better.”
Johnson has outlined plans for player development and where he sees each player in the program’s big picture.
The Gophers will give players a few weeks off after the season and will reconvene for five weeks of spring workouts, then eight weeks of summer training. Preseason practice will open in the fall.
Garcia became the Gophers’ go-to player this season, with the 6-foot-11 center/forward averaging 15.3 points and 6.7 rebounds. With three of the four captains set to leave the team, Garcia’s leadership role will need to increase next season.
Garcia said Thursday night it was tough to think about next year so soon but added, “I’m sure when that time comes, just continue to be connected in the gym together and really strive for something special. Because I feel like we can be, I know we can be really good. I know we’ve got all the right pieces from top to bottom.”
Payne’s development ramped up in February and March, showing the 6-foot-9 center could be a menace to opponents next season.
“He’s a good man to have inside,” Carrigton said after Thursday’s second-round loss to Maryland in the Big Ten tournament in Chicago. “(It’s) just tough to go out this way, but to have this core group of freshmen for the next couple years is definitely exciting.”
The Gophers four freshmen each averaged 20 minutes a game, the only Big Ten team to play that many rookies that often. Johnson started referring to them as sophomores midway through last season, and expectations will go up next year.
With Garcia and Payne leading the scouting report, Minnesota’s upcoming moves to add guards through the portal will be paramount.
Johnson said Ihnen and Parker Fox — both of whom had consecutive season-ending knee injuries — have progressed in their rehab to be able to do some light work. “They are actually able to engage a little bit and be out there with the guys, which is good,” the coach said.
The Big Ten men’s basketball tournament will be at Target Center next March, and Minnesota does not want to go across town with a third straight last-place finish in the conference.
Coming out ahead in the transfer portal and continued player development will be instrumental for Johnson and Co. to make a jump in Year 3.
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