Wildcats’ Thomas not the typical college hoops star

Mark Heller

As a heavily-recruited senior out of De La Salle High School in Minneapolis, Ben Johnson was a wanted man last year.
The potential school list went eight-deep: Michigan State, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, Arizona, Seton Hall, Xavier.
Northwestern is the only school on the list not to have ever had a 20-win season. Of the eight, it’s the only school not to have been in the NCAA tournament.
Northwestern it was.
“I like (Wildcats coach Kevin O’Neill) style and the idea of getting a lot of playing time in a Big Ten school,” Johnson said. “I am also going to one of the top educational universities in the country.
“Playing for a team that really hasn’t won anything, I have the opportunity to play with these guys and try to make history and be a part of something special.”
The prospect of getting a lot of playing time as a motivation factor for going to lowly Northwestern, by itself, sounds selfish. While it might seem Johnson is on a fast track to the NBA, Johnson says he’s in it for the education.
He is, after all, going to one of the best educational schools and he does have an opportunity to make history by winning.
So far, the move has been a good one for his game and his schooling. Johnson leads the Wildcats in minutes per game and in scoring (12.2 ppg entering Thursday night’s game against Michigan State).
Get him off the court, and you’ll see a freshman who seems well behind basketball’s modern age and well ahead of most in his standing.
There is little misconstruing that Johnson would like to end up in the NBA. Who wouldn’t? More importantly, the other side of him is scoping out the scene beyond baselines, screens and fast breaks.
“I want a degree,” Johnson says. “I’m undecided (on a major) right now. To get a degree and an education at this school will benefit me long after basketball is done. I took that into consideration because eventually the ball is going to stop bouncing, and I want to have something to fall back on.
“When you get a degree from this school and you have the connections and reputation it has, you’re pretty much set.”
Obviously, only time will tell if he follows through on his plans, let alone being good enough to play in the pros. Initial indications are that he will.
Johnson’s case is typical in places like Northwestern or Stanford. Schools with an emphasis on academics deviate from the sad reality most college coaches must now deal with: don’t expect your best players to hang around more than three years.
With Ben Johnson, expect the unexpected.
“I think a lot of kids go to a major college program thinking they’re going to be in the NBA, not realizing how hard it is,” coach O’Neill said. “Then they put themselves in a position where when they get out and they don’t have their degree and they don’t have their education, realizing, ‘Hey I have to make a living,’ I think that’s really tough to do.”
“A lot of people who normally don’t have the opportunity to go the places I’ve been and play places I’ve played look up to me as an example,” Johnson said. “When you can affect someone’s life, especially little kids who see you’re successful, it’s important and a big thing. I know there are a lot of people who look up to me, and I need to make the right choices.”
Sanden update
On Thursday, Gophers coach Dan Monson confirmed junior forward/center Kyle Sanden is eligible to play.
“I think it helps our depth and I’m real excited for him if he gets to play,” Monson said. “He’s not in shape right now, and he’s behind in his timing and conditioning.”
If Sanden plays at all Saturday, Monson said he probably can’t go more than three or four minutes at a time.
Terrance Simmons did not practice Thursday. Monson said Simmons is still feeling tired and ill after a rough flight into Penn State. Monson said Simmons will probably practice today and should be able to play on Saturday.

Mark Heller covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]