MINNEAPOLIS - The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team has started fall workouts after meshing several new pieces during an eight-week summer program.
Ben Johnson is entering his second season as head coach, and went through some expected rough patches last year on the way to finishing tied for last in the Big Ten. The Gophers went 9-0 in the non-conference, then got their first Big Ten win on the road at Michigan. Minnesota finished 13-17 last year, and 4-16 in league play.
Johnson has added more talent and depth, so what could the 2022-23 season look like? Here are five thoughts on the Gophers.
WHO REPLACES PARKER FOX, ISAIAH IHNEN?
It feels like every year, there’s a season-ending injury in the offseason for almost every Division I program. The Gophers have two of them, both to players who were out all of last season. Parker Fox was looking great in summer workouts until going down with a right knee injury that required surgery. Fox missed all of last season with a left knee injury. Isaiah Ihnen is also out for the season after re-injuring his left knee in August.
Since they haven’t been healthy and haven’t played, we don’t know what their production would’ve been. In their absence, Dawson Garcia and Pharrel Payne will get significant minutes. Treyton Thompson also has an opportunity for a breakout year after playing in 19 games and getting one start as a freshman.
WHO WILL THE STARTING 5 BE?
It’s way too early to have that conversation, but the Gophers’ lone returning starter from last year is also their leading scorer, Jamison Battle. It’s also safe to assume Garcia, a former McDonald’s All-American who played at Marquette and North Carolina, will start after getting a medical hardship waiver to be eligible this season. Payne, with his size and athleticism, has a great chance to be an immediate contributor and has stood out in early workouts. If Johnson wants to go with experience in the backcourt, he’ll start transfers Ta’Lon Cooper and Taurus Samuels.
Cooper played in 95 games and started 52 at Morehead State, averaging 8.1 points and 4.3 assists over that time. He comes to Minnesota after earning First Team All-Ohio Valley Conference honors last season. Johnson has raved about his leadership early on. Samuels comes from Dartmouth and averaged 9.4 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 23 starts.
WHO CAN MAKE THE BIGGEST IMPACT AMONG FRESHMEN?
Johnson’s first real recruiting class features three Minnesota natives in Park Center guard Braeden Carrington, Osseo guard/forward Joshua Ola-Joseph and Park Cottage Grove center Pharrel Payne. He also added Jaden Henley, and Kadyn Betts, a standout out of Colorado who committed and then reclassified to the 2022 class.
Payne will have the best opportunity to make an immediate impact. He’s a physically imposing player who has a Big Ten-ready body at 6-9 and 230 pounds. Carrington has been steady and will get minutes, and at times, Ola-Joseph has looked like one of the best athletes on the floor in workouts. He’ll look like a more skilled version of Rodney Williams.
WHAT DOES THE BACKCOURT LOOK LIKE?
Again, if Johnson wants to lean on veteran players, he’ll start Ta’Lon Cooper and Taurus Samuels in the backcourt. They’ve played a lot of college basketball, and that experience should be vital come Big Ten play. It’s also arguably their area of greatest depth for the upcoming season. Carrington will play, Henley has shown potential and even Battle can handle the ball. There could also be times where Garcia is a point forward, going back to his days at Prior Lake.
CHANGE THE NARRATIVE
Johnson talked with reporters after the team’s first fall practice and had a nearly six-minute opening statement before taking questions that featured this message: "We need to think like winners, change the narrative." The Gophers have been to seven NCAA Tournaments since the 1997 team went to the Final Four. They have one tournament win since 2013. They’ve finished above .500 in Big Ten play just once since 2010, in 2016-17, when Richard Pitino was the Big Ten Coach of the Year.
If Johnson has any say in it, the Gophers won’t feel sorry for themselves with Fox and Ihnen out. They have the talent to be a top half team in the Big Ten. It’s about having a winning mindset.
The Gophers have Big Ten Media Day next week before opening the season Nov. 2 with an exhibition against St. Olaf.