Gophers looking to make run at Big Ten Tournament: ‘We don’t want it to end’

Elijah Hawkins #0 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers drives to the basket against Jamison Battle #10 of the Ohio State Buckeyes in the first half at Williams Arena on February 22, 2024 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  ((Photo by David Berding/Getty Images))

Ben Johnson will step on the floor at Target Center for the first time in about 25 years on Thursday when the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team faces Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament.

The last time he was there, he was a standout guard at DeLaSalle, leading the Islanders to a Class AAA state championship. He won two of them at DeLaSalle. Now with the Big Ten Tournament in Minneapolis, it’s his hope that creates a home court environment for the Gophers against the Spartans.

"Oh man, that was a long time ago. That was pre-college, state tournament. I’m looking forward to it, I’m looking forward to a new environment," Johnson said Tuesday from Athletes Village. "Having something new and different and unique for us and for the fans is going to be cool. Having it in your back yard, can we take advantage of that?"

They’re going to have to if they want their season to extend past this week. The Gophers (18-13, 9-11) need to win the tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament. They likely need at least one win to be in consideration for the NIT.

It’s March, which means if you lose, your season could be over.

"Unless you’re a team that you know you’re comfortably in, we’re all kind of back against it and it’s that win or go home mentality. That’s the fun part of this year, the stakes are high and hopefully you can ride that emotion the right way," Johnson said. "They have a feeling that they don’t want it to end, but that urgency has got to be there because you don’t know. It could be the last time you lace them up with this group of guys, I know we don’t want it to end."

Johnson faces the balance of making great strides this year – going 9-11 in the Big Ten after six wins combined his first two seasons – with the disappointment that they’re on the outside looking in of making the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers had a 20-point lead at Iowa and lost, they had a double-digit lead at Purdue and lost.

The Gophers finished ninth in the Big Ten, when most preseason predictions had them last. They were two wins from being in a tie for fifth. Minnesota wasn’t far from being an NCAA Tournament lock, a sign of progress for the program.

"We talked yesterday about when you feel a little bit of disappointment at this time of year, I think that’s a good thing. It means you were playing well and you know there’s still meat on the bone," Johnson said. "I told them if I told you guys in the summer we were going to be one game away from .500 in the Big Ten and two games away from being over .500 for the few times in however many years, we all would’ve signed up for that opportunity. If I would’ve told you we weren’t playing on the Wednesday games, we all would’ve signed up for that opportunity. They did a lot of good things this year in a really good league."

Thursday’s winner gets No. 1 seed Purdue on Friday.