Gopher men’s basketball summer workouts showcase a brighter future

Minnesota basketball’s newest recruits, seasoned players and hungry attitude could translate to a season filled with improvement.

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Image by Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota Athletics

Parker Fox talks with his teammates before round one of the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago, in March.

by Alex Karwowski

Gopher men’s basketball finished their season nothing short of disappointing for fans, but Head Coach Ben Johnson said he was grateful for what the team went through.

Johnson spoke on Wednesday about the outlook for the upcoming season. With recruits, returning talent and players coming back from season-long injuries, Johnson is looking forward to the competitive nature of his team following their season filled with struggles.

Summer Workouts

The team started summer practices on June 12. Much of the early work included Johnson figuring out the tendencies of every individual on the roster.

“We’ve done a lot of small group stuff early,” Johnson said. “In a small group, I can really watch a guy – whatever it is 45 to 50 minutes – and figure out, ok he’s really good at this, or I don’t like this, or we can change this.”

In addition to small group activities, Johnson said he has been ensuring the team can play in five-on-five situations to mix things up.

“We’ll do some small five-on-five, just little spurts, because there is the competing factor that I want to get good at,” Johnson said. “We want to program and condition ourselves to compete at all times.”

Although getting back on the court is critical for the team, Johnson said he wants to take this time to allow players who have been sitting in the transfer portal to get in shape and up to speed with the team.

“If you’re in the portal, sometimes you’re not getting a normal spring workout in, so you’re behind already just physically,” said Johnson. “The worst thing you want to do is, all of sudden, you’re hungry to get after it and you get a hammy, you get a back [injury] and now those guys are out.”

New Talent

During the offseason, the Gophers added transfers Jack Wilson, center from Washington State; Mike Mitchell Jr, guard from Pepperdine; and Elijah Hawkins, guard from Howard University. The team also brought in freshmen Cam Christie from Arlington Heights, IL, and Erick Reader from Bloomington, MN.

Christie was ranked a top three recruit out of Illinois by 247Sports,was one of 12 high school athletes to compete in this year’s Rocket Mortgage High School Slam Dunk contest and one of four individuals competing in the event’s 3-point championship.

“He’s talented enough where he can push those [veteran players],” Johnson said. “It’s that iron sharpens iron.”

Cam Christie practices during this year’s summer training camp. (Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota Athletics)

Johnson went to visit Christie at one of his games in January where Christie and his Rolling Meadows team lost to Moline 72-53. The frustration Christie had after the loss quickly turned into excitement.

“I really appreciate him making the trip to come down here and show us his support,” said Christie for the Star Tribune in January. “He’s laid out a good foundation for me – a good plan – and I’m looking forward to getting there.”

Johnson also picked up graduate student Wilson from the transfer portal during the offseason.

“I look forward to sharing what I’ve gained through my experiences with those around me, and doing whatever I can for this team and staff at the University of Minnesota,” Wilson said on Twitter.

The 6-foot-11-inch center played football at Washington State before joining their men’s basketball team. Johnson said it is his physicality that will allow him to be competitive in the Big Ten.

Recently, Johnson rounded out his recruiting class when he added Lithuanian forward Kristupas Keinys. 

Keinys played for Klaipėdos Neptūnas-Akvaservis in the second-best basketball minor league in Lithuania. He averaged 8.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 38 games. He also played for his native country in the U18 European Championships in 2022.

“I think that I can help the team play fast pace and defend,” said Keinys. “I want to be a player that can help everywhere and do everything.

Isaiah Ihen and Parker Fox

Isaiah Ihen and Parker Fox are expected to return to the court next season after missing the last two seasons due to injury.

Johnson said it has been great to see the progress the two have made both physically and mentally as they went through rehab the last two years.

Now that the two are back on the court and in the weight room with the team, Johnson is taking extra precautions to make sure they feel 100% for the season.

“So far it’s been really good – really positive,” said Johnson.

Isaiah Ihnen during a practice at this year’s summer training camp. (Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota Athletics)

Johnson mentioned the maturity Ihen and Fox gained from sitting on the sideline has allowed the two to see the game from a different perspective. Both players are expected to take on leadership roles within the team.

As of right now, Ihen and Fox are “full go” except for five-on-five drills, said Johnson. He plans to have the two evaluated in July to confirm they are ready.

Returning Talent

Among the Gophers returning to the team are Kadyn Betts, Braeden Carrington, Dawson Garcia, Joshua Ola-Joseph, Pharrel Payne, Jackson Purcell and Will Ramberg. 

Johnson believes his returning athletes gained a sense of maturity after going through last season’s hardships.

On the topic of Carrington’s training throughout the spring, Johnson said “He’s gained great weight and strength in the weight room,” and “he doesn’t move like a sophomore.”

Johnson acknowledged after going through his freshman season, Carrington now knows what is expected of him on the court, in a workout and can now do everything with confidence.

Last season, Payne averaged 22 minutes per game as a freshman and has lots of experience getting used to the level that is collegiate basketball. Johnson said he is excited to have him back for another year because “he knows what it takes now.” 

“You can talk to these guys until you’re blue in the face about what it takes in the offseason or what they’re going to be faced with during the season and they can believe you, or they can’t,” said Johnson. “Pharrel has been through it.”

Johnson is looking forward to bringing a team to the court where a majority of the players have played together and are getting comfortable with each other.

“When you add three players that are grown men that have been through it with a hardened younger group, you’re going to see improvement,” said Johnson.

The Future of the Program

Two disappointing seasons under Johnson left Gopher basketball fans frustrated with the trajectory of the program, but a speck of hope was seen after the Gophers had their first postseason victory since 2019 after winning in round one of the Big Ten tournament.

Johnson said he is on the same page as Athletics Director Mark Coyle in regards to the trajectory of the program.

“Mark is great. He understands where we’re at, he understands the process of this,” said Johnson. “When you let something bake, it tastes better.”