After spending the fall telling my friends and family that I like Ben Johnson as the hire, but be prepared to watch what may be the worst Gopher team in our lifetime, this season has truly been a fun team to watch. No doubt that this collection of low and mid-major transfers has surpassed all expectations, we’ve covered this.
And based on this season’s unexpected success, there is reason for great optimism once Johnson is able to add a couple solid recruiting classes to upgrade the talent on this roster. We’ve also covered this. I really am pleased with what we have seen from Johnson and I am very much looking forward to seeing where he can go with this program.
This TMP is going to bring out a few concerns, both for this season and more long-term. Keep in mind this is not a pessimistic view nor is it a prediction of certain failures. Just observations and things I wanted to get off my chest.
This season has been really fun to watch from the perspective of seeing a group of 5 guys on the floor who are executing great set plays and working together to run an efficient offense. Few turnovers and a the best team 3-pt shooting percentage we have seen since the 2015 team. The few turnovers stem from very good execution and passing that has led to taking good shots which tend to go in more than others.
But I’m getting a little concerned about how the offense is evolving through January. It is turning into little more “hero ball” where we are going to win or lose based on 1 or 2 guys getting hot, especially from deep.
The Rutgers game is a great example of this and how it can conceivably work. Of course, I’m giving the Rutgers game a pass because we were without 3 of our 4 leading scorers for this game. So putting the ball into the hands of Payton Willis, allowing him to score 32 points, was arguably necessary to come away with that win.
But things have been a little concerning throughout the month. Jamison Battle is averaging nearly 8 threes per game since the Indiana game on 1/9, while averaging under 7 in all of the games before.
Then the Wisconsin 2nd half was possibly the worst 20 minutes offense we have seen this season. The majority of the 2nd half this team was timid to drive, completely abandoned the post and relied heavily on Battle and Willis to hit big shots.
Following Johnny Davis driving and hitting a basket to put the Badgers up 60-62, the Gophers spread the floor, everyone standing, no ball movement and Willis took a deep-contested three. A miss and the Badgers finished off the game with a win.
I’m not concerned that end of game situations are going to be like this. Johnson has really been elite at running sets for baskets out of timeouts and his teams have generally been very good with executing when needed (see Pitt game, see the EJ Stephens set play to tie it up at Michigan State). This was a poor decision, which happens. My concern is that this mindset of “I’ve got to be the guy to hit a highlight 3” or “I’ve got the hot hand and we’re going to ride this for 20 min” is going to set in.
Willis and Battle are great scorers, but this team is better when the offense is working off each other.
Again, this just short-term and has nothing to do with Johnson. But this schedule is brutal. The Gophers have 7 losses, all are Quad 1 losses (home against top 30 NET or road against top 75). The other 4 teams that are in the bottom 5 of the league? We haven’t yet played any of them.
And after just facing Ohio State and Wisconsin, we get to play Purdue and travel to Iowa.
I’m concerned for the emotional well-being of this team before we get to the stretch where we get to face many of those bottom 5 teams. I’m well aware that the Big Ten schedule is murder, but this year has been particularly harsh on the Gophers.
And The Future
I’ll start out by saying that this little concern might just be me. And really this is a concern more about our collective expectations than it is a concern about Ben Johnson and staff.
I want to avoid getting carried away with the notion that Johnson is going to repeat what he is doing with this year’s team with all of his subsequent teams. The notion of, “if he can do this with this roster, just imagine what he could do when he has more talent” is what concerns me. Will he have good teams? Yes, I believe he will. But will he be able to get this level of “buy-in” from his future teams? Maybe, maybe not.
I believe (and I will fully concede that this is up for debate) that this year was easier to get this subjective and often elusive buy-in. And it is this complete buy-in that is a huge catalyst.
My theory is that Coach Johnson was able to get a handful of guys who have already been humbled by the college basketball recruiting world and ended up playing at mostly low-major schools like Lafayette, New Hampshire, William & Mary and D2 schools. Having frank conversations with those young men, who have been through the process, about what is going to be expected of them in year 1 at Minnesota and frank conversations about how they’ll be expected to play. Well that conversation is very different than when you’re battling with other Big Ten schools for the signature of an 18yr old 4-star recruit who might have a backpack full of entitlement with him.
My point is that getting in a couple of higher ranked classes and getting guys to play together like this and play defense like this, might be harder to get full buy-in.
Now, I do believe that Johnson and Dave Thorson and staff are building the type of culture here that will lend to not only bringing in the right guys but also guys who understand what will be required of them. But that’s easier said than done. And like I said, I’m more concerned about expectations than I am about the actual results we get from Johnson and staff with future rosters.
With all of that said, this team is fun to watch. I’m enjoying this season for what it is and eyeing the future. In a short time, Ben Johnson has impressed. Cannot wait to see him manage the program and the culture.