MINNEAPOLIS - University of Minnesota Athletic Director Mark Coyle isn’t afraid to shake the tree when it comes to coaching hires.
He did it with P.J. Fleck, he did it with Lindsay Whalen and he did it with Bob Motzko. He placed his latest metaphorical wager earlier this week. Eight days after parting ways with Richard Pitino, Coyle hired Ben Johnson to take over the Gophers’ men’s basketball program.
He’ll make his head coaching debut in eight months, but the decision was about recruiting and stabilizing the future of Minnesota basketball. Coyle said last week he didn’t come to Minnesota to be .500, and he wants the Gophers to be a contender with Minnesota talent. What better way to do it than by hiring a guy who once wore the jersey at Williams Arena?
Johnson made the media rounds Tuesday, and here’s a look at his priorities going forward.
RE-RECRUITING GOPHERS CURRENT ROSTER
After accepting the job and putting pen to paper on a contract, Johnson met with what’s left of the current Gophers’ roster Monday night. His message? "Give me a chance. You didn’t choose me, I chose you." What we already know is that Jarvis Omersa, Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Marcus Carr are in the NCAA’s transfer portal. They could return if they wanted, but both are unlikely. Carr is likely pursuing a professional career, and Mashburn came to Minnesota to play for Pitino.
His main priorities come in getting Liam Robbins, Brandon Johnson and Gabe Kalscheur to stay Gophers, if possible. Robbins came to the Gophers to play for his uncle, Ed Conroy. Johnson is a graduate transfer, but can return next season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kalscheur has given no hint he’s going anywhere, and shares the DeLaSalle bond with Johnson.
WHAT ABOUT THE COACHING STAFF?
Johnson has to formulate a coaching staff to put together an identify for his program. Among the previous coaches most likley to stay is Ed Conroy, which should help keep Robbins around next season. The names already circulating to join Johnson include Dave Thorson, now an assistant for Niko Medved at Colorado State. Johnson played for Thorson at DeLaSalle, and considers him a mentor. Jared Nuness is on the staff at Baylor, is known for recruiting and has known Johnson for years. If he wants a previous head coach to lean on, he worked for Tim Miles. Stay tuned, we should know more about the coaching staff soon.
ASSESS THE NCAA TRANSFER PORTAL
Johnson will lose players to the transfer portal, that’s the way life is in college basketball. But he can also use the portal to bring talent in, especially local players who have gone elsewhere and may want to come home. Players who have already been contacted include Parker Fox, a Division II All-American and star at Northern State, and Jamison Battle. Others to keep an eye on include Ishmael El-Amin, Robert Jones and Dawson Garcia. There’s been speculation Garcia, a top-30 recruit last year, may leave Marquette after one season and Steve Wojciechowski’s dismissal. We also learned Wednesday that Minneapolis native and Amstrong graduate Race Thompson, a power forward at Indiana, entered the transfer portal. That's annother name to watch.
CONSTANT COMMUNICATION WITH CURRENT TOP IN-STATE PROSPECTS
Johnson was asked Tuesday who his first recruiting phone call would go to. He said they had already happened. He was on the phone the second his plane landed in the Twin Cities Monday night, once he had cell reception. Those calls reportedly went to many players offered scholarships by the previous staff, including Cam Heide, Eli King, Joe Hurlburt, Tamin Lipsey, Elvis Nnaji, Taison Chatman, Ahjany Lee, Tre Holloman and Chet Holmgren. Johnson also reportedly made contact with Demarion Watson-Saulsberry, Prince Aligbe and Braeden Carrington.
Holmgren, a 7-foot center at Minnehaha Academy, is the No. 1 recruit in the country for the 2021 class. While expected to pick Gonzaga, he’s said nothing official on his future. His dad, Dave Holmgren, played for the Gophers. Holloman is one of the top players in Minnesota’s 2022 class, and is also being heavily recruited by Michigan State.
Johnson will go through his lumps as a head coach, but bringing in talent shouldn’t be the issue. He’s well-connected on the local high school and AAU scene, and his priority will be getting Minnesota’s top players to wear the Gophers’ jersey.