Gophers making strides in Year 3 under Ben Johnson

The Gophers men's basketball team beat Maryland 65-62 on Sunday to improve to 12-3 and 3-1 in the Big Ten. (University of Minnesota Athletics)

Ben Johnson is starting to hear it when he makes a Target run or goes to fill up his gas tank.

The buzz is starting to return with the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team. The Gophers, for the first time in Johnson’s tenure, are on a win streak in Big Ten play. They came back to beat Penn State 83-74 on Jan. 27 with the help of a 52-29 second half. The Gophers on Sunday needed overtime, but beat Northwestern 75-66 to improve to 14-7 and 5-5 in Big Ten play.

The Wildcats took No. 2-ranked Purdue to overtime last week before losing. Johnson already has more Big Ten wins this year than in either of his first two seasons with the Gophers. If Minnesota beats Michigan State Tuesday night, he’ll match Big Ten win total in his first two seasons combined. There were more than 9,000 fans at Williams Arena to watch them beat Northwestern, one of their biggest home crowds of the season. Minnesota is 12-3 on its home court this season.

The buzz around the program has been much like Johnson’s approach to the program: A slow build.

"It’s been kind of cool to see that people are genuinely excited about the direction of the program. It’s a credit to our staff and our players that they’ve been able to turn the corner. I’ve always told them if you play good basketball here, people are going to appreciate and come out and support it," Johnson said Monday. "Now hopefully you can provide the best of both, a good team with a good fanbase."

Johnson spoke at length after Saturday’s win about how the wounds of the first two seasons, which came with a 6-33 overall Big Ten record, will help the program long-term.

"Nobody wants to hear it, especially me. But you’ve got to go through the suck a lot of times, especially here. People hate me for that comment, but I’ve been here as a player, been here as an assistant, been here as a head coach. I understand what works here, the process to get here," Johnson said. "I don’t want to be a quick fix guy, it’s about a standard of excellence over time. It takes time."

As he has in a few games this season, Pharrel Payne took over for the Gophers in the second half on Saturday. He finished with 14 points, nine rebounds, four blocks and two assists. In the second half, he had a thunderous dunk on a Northwestern player, and had a pogo stick-style jump for a blocked shot that brought the Williams Arena crowd to its feet.

"That was a phenomenal play. The first one he had was a verticality thing that he did, we call that a (Roy) Hibbert. We drill that all the time. His jump to get to that block was phenomenal, there’s a few guys in the country that can do that," Johnson said. "It shows his explosiveness. His ability to defend the rim changes us defensively."

A season that started with not much buzz around the program and whispers of a potential coaching change if things didn’t go well has changed. The Gophers now aren’t far away from NCAA Tournament chatter, if things progress.


Gophers’ guard Cam Christie was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week on Monday. He scored 10 of his 15 points against the Wildcats in the second half, including a go-ahead 3-pointer with 44.1 seconds to play. He added six rebounds, three assists and two steals in 42 minutes.

Christie is second on team in scoring at 10.7 points per game, and has scored in double figures 11 times.