MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The first two years for Ben Johnson as head coach at his alma mater Minnesota were a struggle in many ways, with myriad injuries that made program development all the more challenging given the impact of the transfer portal and growing pains for a young team.
After going 22-39 overall and 6-33 in the Big Ten, there is pressure this season on Johnson to shepherd measurable progress even with external expectations never lower. They were picked to finish last in the preseason poll of media covering the conference.
For now, with the opener on Nov. 6 against Bethune-Cookman coming up, Johnson and his staff can start by relishing the fact that they finally have a full roster.
“Music to my ears,” Johnson said.
For the first time since he was hired to replace Richard Pitino, Johnson saw forwards Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen running five-on-five drills at the beginning of fall practice. Fox and Ihnen both suffered a torn ACL in an offseason workout in each of the last two years, relegating them to rehabilitation and encouragement roles and robbing the Gophers of badly needed depth.
When they take the court next month, Fox and Ihnen will see live action for the first time in 2 1/2 years. Fox, an NCAA Division II All-American at Northern State, has never even suited up for Minnesota.
“They're hungrier than ever,” Johnson said.
Ihnen, the only remaining player from the Pitino era, could slot in at the wing in a starting lineup with big men Dawson Garcia and Pharrel Payne and new guards Cam Christie and Mike Mitchell.
Christie is the prize of the freshman class, and Mitchell (Pepperdine) is one of three experienced transfers along with guard Elijah Hawkins (Howard) and center Jack Wilson (Washington State). Guard Braeden Carrington and forward Joshua Ola-Joseph are back after gaining valuable experience with their classmate Payne in a trying freshman year.
“Taking this over, I understood that Minnesota has never been a quick fix if you want to sustain it. That first year, as hard as it was, I knew what it was,” Johnson said. “You have to go through it sometimes, and it’s only going to make you stronger.”
FORMIDABLE FRONT COURT
Garcia, who joined the Gophers last season after transferring from North Carolina, led the team with an average of 15.3 points and 6.7 rebounds and was a preseason All-Big Ten pick. The 6-foot-11 Garcia will pair with his fellow Minnesotan, the 6-foot-9 Payne, to ideally give the Gophers a fighting chance around the basket in this rugged league filled with challenging post players.
“Towards the end of the season, we started to build that connection,” Payne said. “We play off each other, and it definitely helps us succeed.”
STICKING WITH IT
Payne, Carrington and Ola-Joseph, all natives of Minnesota, matured quickly as freshmen thrown into significant roles faster than anticipated who maintained their commitment to the home state program.
“They have no idea how it's going to benefit them as sophomores with what they went through,” Johnson said. “It's not going to get any harder ever again than it was.”
Minnesota's biggest loss was forward Jamison Battle, who transferred to Ohio State for his final college season. Guard Ta'Lon Cooper left for South Carolina, depriving the Gophers of two of their top three scorers from last season. Reserves Jaden Henley (DePaul) and Treyton Thompson (Stetson) also left.. But there are nine returners, by far the most since Johnson took the job.
The Gophers assembled yet another friendly nonconference schedule, with a home game against Missouri on Nov. 16 the only matchup with a high major team. The ACC/Big Ten Challenge has ended, eliminating one annual source of a power conference opponent. Minnesota's only nonconference road game is at San Francisco on Nov. 26. Five of the 11 nonconference foes — Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Ball State, Bethune-Cookman, IUPUI and New Orleans — each lost 20-plus games last season.
BIG TEN BREAK
In the final season with a 14-team league, the Gophers again face six Big Ten foes only once under the 20-game schedule format. With home games against Maryland and Wisconsin and a road trip to Purdue, Minnesota avoids a second matchup with three of the predicted top five finishers in the preseason media poll. The Boilermakers are the consensus favorite to repeat as Big Ten champions.
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