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Gophers men’s basketball erasing negative projections, exceeding expectations

The Gophers’ several new additions helped evolve the program into an NIT-qualifying team, but there is still work cut out for them.
Image by Alex Karwowski
The Gophers were ranked No. 14 in the Big Ten preseason rankings.

The Gophers men’s basketball team received a bid to play in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) for the first time since 2014 and the first time under head coach Ben Johnson’s tenure.

The team was defined by its 2-17 conference record last year, but Johnson worked to rewrite that narrative.

“We made progress this year,” Johnson said. “I don’t forget where we started.”

Minnesota defeated Butler 73-72 in the first round of the tournament on Tuesday.

Heading into the preseason, the Gophers were ranked No. 14 in the Big Ten polls. Johnson fielded a team of six underclassmen on a roster of 15, with two players spending the last two years away from basketball recovering from injuries.

Minnesota finished the season with a 9-11 conference record and managed to enter the conference tournament as the No. 9 seed compared to last season when they entered as the No. 14 seed.

“[The players] know that we can play better basketball than how we ended,” Johnson said. “They want to get back out there and compete.”

Gophers leading scorer Dawson Garcia was among the players who Johnson said was eager to continue playing.

Throughout the season, Garcia was an active playmaker both under the hoop and at the top of the key. He led the team in scoring in his two years on the team, averaging 16.7 points per game. After losing to Michigan State on Thursday, head coach for the Spartans, Tom Izzo, went up to Garcia to compliment him on his growth.

“Garcia is a load,” Izzo said. “You have to game plan against Garcia.”

Garcia acknowledged the level of growth within the program and said he was grateful for the support from teammates, coaches and the University. He added that the program is taking steps in “the right direction” to rewrite the narrative.

“Everybody’s invested into a winning culture,” Garcia said.

Johnson’s three sophomores, Pharrel Payne, Braeden Carrington and Joshua Ola-Joseph, all played alongside Garica last season. Johnson said the sophomores “went through it last year,” which helped them set a standard of confidence within themselves when playing at the collegiate level.

Payne, for example, has showcased his newly found confidence through his improvements on the free-throw line.

Payne made 58% of his free throws in the last 10 games of the season, whereas in the first 10 games of the season, he made 38% of his free throws.

With a core group set, Johnson filled several gaps on his roster, adding juniors Elijah Hawkins and Mike Mitchell from the transfer portal. Johnson, reflecting on their performance throughout the season, said the two are competitors and complimented their willingness to play for a new program.

“It’s not easy to be flipping a switch and all of a sudden now morph and be successful in the Big Ten,” Johnson said.

Hawkins adjusted well to the Big Ten, leading the conference in assists and breaking former Gopher Marcus Carr’s single-season assist record. 

Johnson also brought in 247Sports’s No. 79 nationally-ranked recruit Cam Christie. The native out of Arlington Heights, Illinois, made 41% of his 3-point attempts this season and earned himself a spot in the starting lineup and on the All-Big Ten freshman team.

In his first five games, Christie averaged 9 points per game whereas in his last five, he averaged 12 points per game. When talking about the future of the program, redshirt senior Parker Fox acknowledged the work ethic of Christie.

“You see the work that he puts in every single day, it’s no surprise he’s the talent that he is on the court,” Fox said.

The Gophers will continue their run in the NIT tournament and play the winner of the game between Indiana State and Southern Methodist in the second round.

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  • RoseAnn M Bartels
    Apr 6, 2024 at 2:32 pm

    So proud of Prior Laker Dawson Garcia. His family should be very proud as are the cities of Prior Lake and Savage. Go Gopher Nation.