Ben Johnson wants Gophers to have 'competitive ego' after loss at Ohio State

Dawson Garcia had a career-high 36 points in Minnesota's 84-74 loss at Ohio State on Sunday. (Brad Rempel/University of Minnesota Athletics)

It's only early December, but it already feels like a critical time for Ben Johnson with the University of Minnesota basketball team.

The Gophers opened Big Ten play with an 84-74 loss at Ohio State Sunday night. They trailed 11-2 early and by as many as 22 in the first half. They got as close as six in the second half before the Buckeyes pulled away late.

Minnesota (5-3), 0-1) faces Nebraska Wednesday night in its Big Ten home opener at Williams Arena. It’s a game the Gophers need to win with games against Florida Gulf Coast, IUPUI, Ball State and Maine to close out the non-conference schedule before resuming Big Ten play at Michigan in January. If they lose and start 0-2 in Big Ten play, they’ll have to sit on that for almost a month.

"If you win, there’s a momentum piece that can carry you through December to January. I don’t want our guys to feel crazy pressure, they know you want to win every game. It could be a big momentum piece for the rest of the month that then carries you into January," Johnson said Tuesday.

Johnson talked at length about his team having a winning mentality this season. He talked to his team in an early practice about Mike Tomlin gushing over Ohio State football players, and he wants his players at that standard. But when you haven’t won consistently, that’s a tall task.

Johnson is 6-33 in Big Ten play in his first two seasons with the Gophers, both 14th-place finishes. They’re currently 0-1, but his roster is as talented and deep as it’s ever been. They had a 20-point second half lead on Missouri that slipped away, and have showed in flashes they can play with anyone.

Now it’s about building the confidence that they can win. He’s going to do that through his players who have had consistent success. Dawson Garcia is a former McDonald’s All-American who had a career-high 36 points at Ohio State. Elijah Hawkins led Howard to the NCAA Tournament last season.

"The piece that we’ve got to figure out is that for guys that haven’t experienced winning at this level, how do you develop a winner’s mindset early? How do you teach that? How do we develop that? We could be playing anybody tomorrow, the mindset of you lose, you take one on the chin, the bounce back mentality of I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we’re going to find a way to win," Johnson said. "Developing that when you finally have a team that can do it in the early part of the year, that’s what I’m about. That will pay off down the line, we’ve got to get that one to get us over the top."

He also wants his players to have "a competitive ego." Even if you haven’t won a lot, have a winner’s mentality. All it takes is one win to get that, and Johnson believes his squad is close.

"You just need that one break that gets you over the top. Once you do and you can finally flip it, with the talent that we have and the grit we have, I do think we can go on a run," Johnson said. "Finding ways for this team to find miniature wins is so big when they don’t have a lot to fall back on because we just haven’t done it yet. We’ve got to win so they can feel that confidence. I call it competitive ego, we’ve got to have competitive ego."


The Gophers host Nebraska Wednesday night, and Johnson might have a decision to make on starting Pharrel Payne. He had 17 points and five rebounds in a win over New Orleans, then had six points and seven rebounds in 31 minutes against the Buckeyes. 

Johnson said he’s told his players lineups will change throughout the season, based on match-ups.

"I’ve told him this whether he starts or not, he’s now able to go that 25-30 minutes. He’s really going to be playing those starter minutes whether I do or not. What puts us into an advantage with one of our better players early?" Johnson said. "I’ve told our guys we will have multiple lineups throughout the year, most of it will depend on a match-up or what we think we can get."