MINNEAPOLIS - University of Minnesota men’s basketball coach Ben Johnson talked during fall workouts about his program having a winning mentality and changing the narrative.
As he enters his second season with the Gophers, they got a brief taste of success last year. That featured a 9-0 start in the non-conference, and their first Big Ten road win at Michigan. It had opposing coaches raving about Johnson and the future of the Gophers. His first season ended with a 13-17 record, including a 4-16 mark in Big Ten play.
There’s a belief within the program this year will be much different. Johnson went to the transfer portal to land former Prior Lake star Dawson Garcia, and brings in a talented freshmen class that includes Minnesota natives Braeden Carrington, Pharrel Payne and Joshua Ola-Joseph, as well as Jaden Henley.
"I have trust in 11 guys. I think there’s athleticism that fits this league, there’s size that fits this league and there’s talent that fits this league and it’s across the board," Johnson said Wednesday at Big Ten Media Days at Target Center. "When you have young talent that’s willing to work, they’re going to get better. There’s no ceiling for those guys, and as a coach that’s what you want. We talk about we’re a team that should look different in January and February than we do in November and December."
Minnesota’s lone returning starter is Jamison Battle. He’s also their leading scorer (17.5) and rebounder (6.3) from last season, and comes in as a preseason All-Big Ten pick. He said their goals come down to winning games, despite projections that have the Gophers finishing 12th in the Big Ten.
"I think it’s just about winning games. You can talk about last season, we had a great start but we faded off in the second half of the season. Just as a team, it’s just about winning games. That’s all we’re really focused on is winning, because winning cures all," Battle said. "We have more than enough and that’s something that coach preaches. There’s just a different feeling about the guys we have, and I think something really special is going to be built."
Johnson raved about Battle’s maturity on Wednesday. The junior forward out of Robbinsdale lost 17 pounds in the offseason, largely by changing his diet. The goal is that with Garcia and Payne in the frontcourt, Battle can focus more on being a perimeter player.
"It says everything about him. He knows at this level to be that First Team All-Big Ten type player, you’ve got to be in great shape physically. He also knows if you have aspirations of playing at the next level, you’ve got to start that process now," Johnson said. "He took it and ran with it. I just think you see a guy moving out there with supreme confidence right now."
Battle, Treyton Thompson and Will Ramberg are the three players back from last season. Payne, a former Park Cottage Grove standout, might be the Gophers’ most physical presence at 6-9 and 255 pounds.
In one fall practice open to media, Payne flew high for monster dunks and also showed nifty footwork with post moves. He’s going to be a problem for Big Ten opponents.
"Pharrel man, he’s a stud. You see some of the stuff he does in practice and you’re like, this kid is only a freshman? Having a big guy who can impact the game so well, he’s learning," Battle said.
Garcia brings versatility at 6-10 and 235 pounds to play inside and outside, two years removed from being a McDonald’s All-American. The Gophers will also feature a veteran backcourt with Morehead State transfer Ta’Lon Cooper, and Dartmouth transfer Taurus Samuels.
The Gophers have finished .500 or better in the Big Ten once since the 2009-10 season. That was in 2016-17, when Richard Pitino was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year. The Gophers’ last trip to the NCAA Tournament came in 2019. The hope is that narrative changes, starting this year.
"We’re going to change the tide," Battle said.
Fans will get to see the new-look Gophers for the first time on Nov. 7 against Western Michigan at Williams Arena.