The numbers that sum up this season for Minnesota are awfully bleak.
The Gophers have 17 losses in Big Ten play, an average scoring margin that's fourth-worst among the major conference teams, and a free-throw shooting percentage ranking 352nd -- dead last -- in the country. Two weeks ago, they lost their top recruit in the 2023 class.
Still, second-year coach Ben Johnson has found legitimate reasons to remain upbeat.
The Gophers have four promising freshmen playing at least 20 minutes per game, a group that Johnson has already been grooming for next fall when he and his assistants will eagerly carry over some continuity after essentially starting from scratch in each of his first two seasons.
“This year was hard on everybody. We’re not going to have another year like this, so if you can survive this and persevere and still progress and develop as a player -- which they have -- just think when stuff’s going really good,” Johnson said.
Last week, Johnson met with Pharrel Payne, Joshua Ola-Joseph, Braeden Carrington and Jaden Henley for his latest assessment of their development and encouragement for their future. The quartet is expected to return intact along with leading scorer Dawson Garcia, who will have two years of eligibility left. The ubiquity of the transfer portal makes such plans an obvious risk, but after two straight seasons of entirely new lineups the Gophers can at least count on some stability for 2023-24.
“It’s not common for freshmen to play this many minutes, so with us having that many minutes under our belts I definitely feel like it’s helped us grow faster than certain freshmen that don’t play that many minutes in our conference,” Ola-Joseph said. “In the future I feel like we’ll be a really good core.”
When five-star recruit Dennis Evans, a 7-foot prep star from California, asked for his release from the letter of intent he signed with Minnesota on Nov. 9, the Gophers were dealt yet another setback. Jamison Battle, the team's second-leading scorer, is on track to graduate and leaning toward pursuing a pro career rather than returning for his final season, Johnson announced last week.
The Gophers (8-21) play Nebraska on Wednesday night in the Big Ten Tournament. They finished last in the league for the second straight year and are 6-33 in conference play under Johnson. Since the program’s lone Final Four appearance in 1997, which was vacated by the NCAA for an academic fraud scandal, Minnesota has made the NCAA Tournament just six times and won only two games in it.
Johnson said on Monday that he has the support of athletic director Mark Coyle.
“He’s a guy that totally understands. He’s like me, though. He’s really competitive, and he wants to win, and he knows that we can win here, and we’re going to win here,” Johnson said. “But he’s just been really supportive.”
There will be nowhere to go but up next season for the Gophers, who are 167-290 in Big Ten play since that Final Four team in 1997.
“Just having those bodies back that know our system, and you’re able to build on that stuff,” Johnson said. “It’s the first time I don’t feel like it’s a total start-over and that’s exciting to me.”