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Returning talent set to give Gophers men’s basketball competitive edge

The Gophers men’s basketball team will field a complete roster this upcoming season, hoping to build off last season’s mishaps.
Image by Alex Karwowski
Basketballs featuring the colors of all 14 teams line the wall of the Target Center during the Big Ten men’s basketball media days on Oct. 10, 2023.

Head coach for Gophers men’s basketball Ben Johnson expressed his excitement Tuesday to bring a team with depth and returning talent to the court this upcoming season.

Johnson explained his excitement to field a team that has “gone through it” at the annual Big Ten basketball media days. He said the returning talent, mixed with the freshman and transfers brought in, will give them an edge they did not have last season.

Returning to the court for the Gophers is leading scorer Dawson Garcia. Garcia averaged 15.3 points per game last season. This upcoming season will be the first time in his career he has played in the same program for consecutive years.

Johnson said there is a level of comfort Garcia has going into next season because he knows what is expected of him.

“You have returning players that understand your game and you understand their game. There’s comfort in that,” Johnson said.

Returning to the court along with Garcia is sophomore Pharrel Payne. Johnson said he holds high expectations for Payne given what the team went through last year and the role Payne stepped into as a freshman.

“To get the experience that he got to be thrown into the fire, I think that’s the best teacher,” Johnson said. “He is not a typical sophomore like the other two guys Braeden [Carrington] and Josh [Ola-Joseph].”

After the whirlwind of last season, Payne said one of his biggest goals heading into the offseason was to put himself in a position to be able to compete with bigger guys.

“The big thing was training for the physicality of the Big Ten,” Payne said. “To be able to compete with the big guys you have got to get stronger and faster.”

Johnson said Garcia had also been working to condition his body and had an unbelievable offseason in terms of physical growth.

“That was something he really takes pride in and wanted to get stronger and really worked on his conditioning,” Johnson said.

The Gophers will also return both Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen after both missed the last two seasons due to injury.

Garcia said it has been great to see Fox and Ihnen not only overcome their injuries but also flourish in practice.

“The other day, Fox went in grasping [the ball] with two hands, head up by the rim, off the backboard,” Garcia said.

Johnson said Fox and Ihnen both have their style of play that will help to up the level of the team. He added Fox has a really strong understanding and feel of how to play and Ihnen is a versatile player due to his size.

Fox and Ihnen are not the only ones who have developed on the team throughout the offseason. Carrington and Ola-Joseph both were true freshmen last year and developed as athletes after going through last season.

Payne said as a group, he and his fellow sophomores grow exponentially in their competitiveness.

“Everybody is committed, every day [we are] getting the work in,” Payne said.

Johnson highlighted Ola-Joseph’s ability to develop his shot throughout the summer. He said his challenge to him for the offseason was to begin to play the perimeter by working on his jump shot.

“I couldn’t tell you the amount of hours he spent in the gym just getting up, standing-still jump shots,” Johnson said. “Dude has been committed.”

With all the pieces falling in the right place and a hunger for redemption, the Gophers will look to be a more competitive team this season than they were last season.

Garcia said the goal of the team is to play in the NCAA Tournament. 

“We’re driven by that,” Garcia said. “We have the talent and commitment to do so.”

The Gophers will first take the court next season in an exhibition match against Macalester on Nov. 2, before they open their season at Williams Arena on Nov. 6 against Bethune-Cookman.

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