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Minnesota Men’s Basketball: Can Ben Johnson rebuild a program from scratch?

Difficult days are ahead for the new men’s basketball coach

Kelly Hagenson

In his introductory press conference, new Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s basketball head coach Ben Johnson quoted his football counterpart P.J. Fleck when asked about his plans for the players who were recruited under Richard Pitino: “They didn’t choose me, I chose them.”

Two months after that press conference, Johnson’s words ring truer than ever with the news that junior guard Both Gach has entered the transfer portal, becoming the 10th player from the previous regime to make his exit from Minnesota. Only Isaiah Ihnen remains.

Perhaps the most crushing loss was that of Gabe Kalscheur. A former DeLaSalle standout, Kalscheur was recruited by Johnson back when he was an assistant under Pitino. Johnson, who was hired in large part because of his local ties and reputation as a recruiter, also played at DeLeSalle, as did assistant coach Dave Thorson. Retaining Kalscheur, who would almost certainly have been a starter for Minnesota next season, seemed like a slam dunk.

Instead, Kalscheur will be in Ames playing for Iowa State.

Johnson is certainly weathering a confluence of events that are largely outside his control. It’s not unusual for there to be attrition after a program fires their head coach, but the introduction of the transfer portal three years ago has led to a proliferation of transfers across the country. The NCAA also approved immediate eligibility for first-time transfers this spring, affording student-athletes more mobility in the transfer market. None of these are inherently bad developments, but they’ve made Johnson’s challenge at Minnesota even more of an uphill climb.

To be fair, the transfer portal giveth as well as taketh. Johnson has been able to secure a handful of fresh (and one familiar) faces, including George Washington forward Jamison Battle, William & Mary guard Luke Loewe, Lafayette guard E.J. Stephens, New Hampshire guard Sean Sutherlin, Northern State’s Parker Fox, and even Charleston guard (and former Gopher) Payton Willis.

The influx of transfers — while still a far cry from a competitive Big Ten roster — will help ensure Minnesota is at least able to field a team next season, but all of them are one-year rentals, with the exception of Battle. Looking ahead to 2022, the only current players you could even pencil in are Ihnen, Battle, and incoming freshman Treyton Thompson. It’s as if the entire program shut down for a year and now Johnson has the unenviable task of rebuilding it from the ground up.

It’s going to put his recruiting skills to the test. Ample playing time for a Big Ten team will certainly be a selling point, but you would also imagine that was a selling point for the players who were on the roster when Pitino was fired. As a first-year head coach, there are reasonable questions about his ability to coach on the court, and I’m not sure of the quality of answers the next couple seasons will provide. P.J. Fleck often cites time, consistency, and proof as the three pillars of success. I’m sure Johnson will be afforded plenty of time. But will he be able to establish a consistent culture with such a volatile roster? He won’t have much, if any proof until that happens.

And Johnson’s margin for error in recruiting has been reduced to zero. When you’re building a roster from the ground up, you can’t afford to have a recruiting class not pan out. Johnson will likely need to spend the next couple years bringing in a combination of transfers and high school graduates each offseason until the roster balances out.

The coming months will certainly be interesting as Johnson fills out the rest of his roster. He’ll need to do so with more than one-year rentals, because more than one year may be at stake.