MINNEAPOLIS - It wasn’t official and doesn’t count towards anything, but the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team opened its season with an 80-67 exhibition win over Concordia-St. Paul Monday night at Williams Arena.
It was the first time for Ben Johnson on the Williams Arena floor as a head coach. It was also the debut for 10 players in Minnesota jerseys. The season starts for real next week, but Monday night gave us the first glimpse of what the Gophers’ program could look like under Johnson.
Here are five takeaways from the game.
BEN JOHNSON MAKES HIS GOPHERS COACHING DEBUT
Ben Johnson was hired on March 22 to replace Richard Pitino as men’s basketball coach. Monday marked his first time on the sidelines in the new role. Every available scholarship player got minutes, and Johnson said after the win he’s seen growth in his team since a "secret scrimmage" at Oklahoma. The last time he was at Williams Arena, he was an assistant for Pitino.
He got a win Monday night, even if it didn’t officially count. He also hosted several 2022 and 2023 local high school recruits, who got their first look at what the program might look like moving forward.
JAMISON BATTLE, PAYTON WILLIS SHINE IN BACKCOURT
Jamison Battle was Johnson’s first commitment in a new era for Gophers’ basketball. The Robbinsdale native didn’t disappoint in his unofficial debut. He scored 18 of his game-high 24 points in the first half, shooting 8-of-15 from the field and 3-of-8 from the perimeter. He also grabbed six rebounds. Payton Willis added 23 points, shooting 9-of-15 from the field and 4-of-7 from three-point range, and dished out five assists.. The two scored a combined 47 points, and each played more than 30 minutes. It’s early, but Battle and Willis are the likely early 1-2 scoring punch for the Gophers.
WILL FRONTCOURT SIZE BE AN ISSUE IN BIG TEN PLAY?
Johnson was a guard in college, so it’s natural that his team might be dominated by guards. But in the Big Ten, you need size and rebounding. The major concern coming out of Monday night’s win was getting out-rebounded 43-41, and giving up 15 offensive rebounds. The Gophers getting out-rebounded by a Division II school is an early red flag, but the good news is it’s early. They only had four blocks, and gave up 24 points in the paint. A lack of size can be fixed by playing physical and winning battles to loose balls. It’s something to watch as the season starts.
DEFENSE, ENERGY FROM THE SIDELINE A BIG PLUS
It’s hard to judge based off playing a Division II school, but the Gophers forced Concordia-St. Paul into 20 turnovers and limited the Bears to 38 percent shooting from the field, and 35 percent from the perimeter. The Gophers scored 26 points off those turnovers. Another positive was the energy on the bench. Players under Pitino often hung their hands after a making a mistake and would look toward the bench to see if they were coming out of the game. Monday night, players stayed largely positive. Johnson said during preseason practice he wants the Gophers to lead the Big Ten "in high fives and butt slaps."
MINNESOTA NATIVES TREYTON THOMPSON, SEAN SUTHERLIN MAKE GOPHER DEBUTS
Monday night marked the debuts for Minnesota natives Treyton Thompson and Sean Sutherlin. Thompson, a former Alexandria standout before going to prep school for a year, scored two points and grabbed two rebounds in eight minutes. His role will get bigger as he gets comfortable at the Division I level. Sutherlin, an Irondale standout who played at New Hampshire, had six points, six rebounds and two assists in 18 minutes. Healthy after a shoulder injury last year, Sutherlin drove the lane when he wanted and gives the Gophers another ball-handler.
It’s one game, but it’s a win and a new era of Gophers basketball is underway. The season starts, for real, next Tuesday against Kansas City.