Seniors leave a changed program

Two remaining players from pre-Tubby Smith era enjoyed success.

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Matt Mead

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Max Sanders

Gophers basketball players Damian Johnson and Lawrence Westbrook will leave the program following collegiate careers that were at the center of the Minnesota programâÄôs renaissance. Johnson and Westbrook weathered a coaching change and a tumultuous senior season to contribute to three-straight 20-win campaigns, back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances and MinnesotaâÄôs first-ever run to the Big Ten championship game. But the start of their Gophers careers barely foretold the eventual on-court success. They were among the final players recruited by former Gophers head coach Dan Monson. Johnson, a forward from Thibodaux, La., was still considering Georgetown and Texas A&M before a campus visit to Minnesota convinced him of his college choice. âÄúI just felt comfortable here,âÄù Johnson said. âÄúThe people here were just friendlier; there was just more of a family environment here at the time.âÄù Westbrook, a guard and Chandler, Ariz., native, picked the Gophers in part for a new experience. âÄúI just wanted to do something different,âÄù Westbrook said. âÄúMe being from the West Coast, try something different [and] come to the Midwest; that was the main reason.âÄù Coaching change Seven games into the playersâÄô freshman season (Johnson redshirted the 2005-06 season) , Monson, the coach who convinced both of them to come across the country to Minnesota, resigned. Suddenly, each player faced the prospect of playing for an unknown new coach. âÄúItâÄôs always tough when you have a coach that recruited you [leave],âÄù Westbrook said. âÄúThe next person that comes in didnâÄôt recruit you, so he might feel differently than the person that brought you in.âÄù Johnson said he thought of transferring after the 2006-07 season but not because of the coaching turmoil. If anything, Johnson said he would have tried to be closer to home at schools like Louisiana State, Louisiana Tech or Mississippi State. âÄúThe weather was getting to me at the time, so I was just a little homesick for a while,âÄù he said. Westbrook said he also contemplated leaving but wanted to find out who the new coach would be. On March 23, 2007, Johnson said he was sitting in his room watching ESPNews when the news broke that Tubby Smith would be hired as the next Gophers basketball coach. âÄúOnce I found out, I called [then-freshman] Kevin Payton and [then-sophomore] Jamal [Abu-Shamala] to the room, because Jamal was my roommate,âÄù Johnson said. âÄúWe were just watching all the stuff they were saying about it.âÄù Westbrook said he was excited about the hiring of KentuckyâÄôs former national championship coach. âÄúI was happy, because heâÄôs a good coach, and it was just an opportunity for me and Damian to improve ourselves and get a fresh start to play,âÄù Westbrook said. Johnson wasnâÄôt as sure. Even after Smith had his first meeting with the team, Johnson said he was still anxious about players being let go in favor of a new coachâÄôs recruits. He thought he might be vulnerable to roster changes to accommodate new players Smith might prefer. âÄúI thought if he was going to get rid of someone, it would have been me,âÄù Johnson said. âÄúI was a redshirt freshman; heâÄôd probably get rid of someone younger than an older guy, so I just didnâÄôt know what to expect.âÄù New opportunity Instead of leaving, though, Johnson spent the summer of 2007 working hard to become a better player. âÄúMy redshirt freshman year, I never played, I never was comfortable when I was playing out there,âÄù Johnson said. âÄúI wasnâÄôt really having a coach giving me confidence at the time, so I just had to give myself confidence, focus on doing what I do best.âÄù Johnson said his fears were calmed after he performed well in the first few practices before the 2007-08 season, his sophomore campaign. Westbrook said Smith made it clear he had no favorites. âÄúWho played before didnâÄôt matter,âÄù Westbrook said. âÄúYou had to earn your playing time; everybody started off with a clean slate. Once he said that, I was more than confident that I would play.âÄù Greater opportunity in SmithâÄôs first season led to dramatically better on-court results for both players. Johnson significantly increased his points per game, rebounds and blocked shots while playing 23 minutes per contest. Westbrook more than doubled his scoring average , which he credited to SmithâÄôs willingness to let the sophomore play valuable minutes on the court. âÄúJust the opportunity to play,âÄù Westbrook said. âÄúI really didnâÄôt get a chance to do that my freshman year. I just got an opportunity to get more minutes; with more minutes your stats will increase.âÄù Success in a trying year Johnson and Westbrook were juniors on the 2008-09 Gophers team that made the NCAA tournament and lost to No. 7 seed Texas in the East regional. That success heightened expectations for the pairâÄôs final season, but the off-court issues of recruits Trevor Mbakwe and Royce White were among the storylines for much of the season. But Johnson said those situations never played a role in the teamâÄôs on-court struggles. âÄúThe off-the-court issues were mentioned a lot, but I donâÄôt think they really affected our team,âÄù Johnson said. âÄúThe whole team played with each other the year before; we never played with the guys that were part of the issue, so we didnâÄôt even know what to expect from them in a game situation anyway.âÄù But Johnson and Westbrook admitted that losing junior point guard Al Nolen midway through the season because of academic ineligibility truly hurt the team. âÄúI think that was really hard for us to handle at first,âÄù Johnson said. The Gophers missed NolenâÄôs ball handling and defense, but they still had chances to win close games with sophomore Devoe Joseph in the starting job. âÄúWe definitely missed Al, but thereâÄôs no excuses,âÄù Westbrook said. âÄúWe had a lot of games that we should have and we could have won, and we just didnâÄôt.âÄù The team clicked in time to make a deep run in the Big Ten tournament to snatch a second-straight NCAA tournament bid that seemed a long shot before the conference tournament. âÄúAt the end of the year, the guys were the most focused and determined IâÄôd ever seen them at practice,âÄù Johnson said. After Johnson and Westbrook played their final game in a first-round loss to Xavier, SmithâÄôs name was tied to rumors about several head coaching jobs, most notably at Oregon. Westbrook said Smith held a meeting with players in the midst of the rumors and said that he was not leaving Minnesota. âÄúI donâÄôt want to put words in Coach SmithâÄôs mouth, but when he talked to us, he just said he loves us, and heâÄôs not going anywhere,âÄù Westbrook said. Hoping to stay on court Johnson and Westbrook have their sights set on playing professionally, though Johnson, who is training in Chicago with someone referred to him by his agent, said he still needs to improve some parts of his game. âÄúIâÄôm not ready right now, but thatâÄôs why IâÄôm going to do this training,âÄù Johnson said. âÄúI need to improve my ball handling and shooting; becoming a more consistent shooter from deep.âÄù Westbrook believes his game is NBA-ready now, and he is ready to start proving it in basketball camps, summer leagues or individual workouts. âÄúYou got to have confidence in yourself; if not, you shouldnâÄôt be playing,âÄù Westbrook said. âÄúI know that a lot of overseas people and some NBA teams have expressed a lot of interest.âÄù Both players said they just want to keep playing. âÄúObviously everybody wants to make it to the NBA, and IâÄôll try that,âÄù Westbrook said. âÄúWhether itâÄôs playing in the NBA, which I hope, or playing overseas, just being a pro, playing for money.âÄù Yet both will still be able to look back on being a part of a collegiate teamâÄôs turnaround. âÄúI wish we could have gone further in the [NCAA] tournament, but IâÄôm pretty happy with what we did,âÄù Johnson said. âÄúIâÄôm proud to see how the young guys handled adversity. IâÄôm proud to see how they handled it, and I feel they are going to be strong going forward.âÄù