MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - In the first week of practice for the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team this fall, Ben Johnson brought his players to the video board on the court at Athletes Village after stretching.
He showed them a clip of Pittsburgh Steelers’ coach Mike Tomlin talking about Ohio State football players, specifically C.J. Stroud. The message? Buckeyes’ athletes are held to a high standard, they’re always ready for the bright lights and the big stage.
Johnson wants the Gophers to hold themselves to that standard.
"My point to our guys is we need to start looking at ourselves that way, carry ourselves with a certain type of presence and ability. To me that’s important," Johnson said last week at Big Ten Media Days at Target Center. "We have to mentally be there before we even are there."
They have to act like they’ve been there before, even though they haven’t. Johnson replaced Richard Pitino in 2021, after two NCAA Tournament appearances and one win in eight seasons. The fan base got re-energized in Johnson’s first season after the Gophers went 9-0 in the non-conference, including wins over Pittsburgh and Mississippi State.
Then the reality of the Big Ten set it. The Gophers finished 13-17 and 4-16 in league play. Last year, they lacked depth from the start due to injuries and couldn’t hold full practices. The Gophers went 9-22, 2-17 in Big Ten play.
That’s 22-39 overall, and 6-33 in the Big Ten in two seasons. Despite the struggles, Johnson’s positivity never changed as he builds the foundation for his program and watches the vision take shape. Johnson told his players repeatedly last year it’s never going to get harder than it is right now. Those struggles will pay off down the road, which isn’t an easy message to receive in the era of the transfer portal and NIL.
"You want to win every game, but I was good because I knew what it was. In taking this over, I understood 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. That’s part of the growing process, I know some people don’t want to hear it, but that’s just the reality, especially for our program and where we’re at. We’re not at the point where we’re going to flip it in one year and be able to sustain it."
That flip starts with Dawson Garcia, who is back and a Preseason All-Big Ten pick after leading the Gophers in scoring and rebounding last year. He was asked to take on a more vocal leadership role this offseason, and has responded.
"He’s a warrior. Every day how he conducts himself, it’s one form of leadership. The dude has one speed, he goes a million miles an hour 100 percent of the time," Johnson said. "That is the next step in Dawson’s career is to be that guy that can not only perform, but lead."
Joining him in the front court is sophomore Pharrel Payne, who played 30 games and started four last season. He averaged 8.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.
At 6-9 and 255 pounds, he’s a load in the paint and just scratching the surface of his potential.
"He’s a physical nightmare in the paint," Garcia said. "He got thrown into the fire and was asked to do a lot, but that’s only helped him progress more. People know he’s talented, but I don’t know if people know how talented he is."
For the first time in Johnson’s tenure, the Gophers have multiple returners back. That list includes Braeden Carrington, Joshua Ola-Joseph, Garcia, Payne, Kadyn Betts and for the first time in two years, a healthy Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen.
Johnson has new guard talent too, with freshman guard Cam Christie, Pepperdine transfer Mike Mitchell Jr. and Howard transfer Elijah Hawkins.
"We have the right ingredients to be successful and the right game plan to be successful. Now it’s my job to get us there and to get it done," Johnson said.
The goal, as it is every year, is for the Gophers to have their name called on Selection Sunday. That would be quite the leap, after finishing last in the Big Ten last past two seasons.
"We want to be playing in the postseason. Obviously our main goal is we want to get into that tournament. We’re driven by that, and each and every day we’ve got to show up," Garcia said. "It’s not going to happen overnight, but I really do believe and I know everybody else in there believes that we do have the talent and commitment to do so."