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Minnesota Basketball: Offseason questions for Gopher hoops

With the season behind us, it is going to be another busy offseason

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Ben Johnson was hired March 21st of 2021 and very quickly discovered that he not only had to hire a coaching staff, but he also lost almost his entire roster. What ensued was a mad scramble to put together a roster that could compete in the Big Ten.

None of this is new information to those of us who pay attention. And if you’re reading this, you most certainly pay attention. But the roster was completely turned over and replaced with a hodge podge of players transferring up from low & mid-majors. The season was what it was and now we get to Johnson’s second offseason. Really the first with any sort of stability and a better understanding of how he is going to manage his roster and program.

But there will still be significant turnover from this past season. Eight of the team’s 13 scholarship players are no longer eligible to play. And really there were only 6 guys who consistently played meaningful minutes this season. Of those 6, only Jamison Battle returns. You could include Treyton Thompson as a 7th player who got meaningful minutes if you’d like.

The point is that you are replacing 8 scholarships and you are replacing 5/6 of your biggest contributors.

This leaves a lot of questions for the offseason. Here are the biggest ones.

Who transfers out?

It happens every year. Every single year. Every year when transferring meant having to sit out for a year. And you know it is going to happen in the era of the transfer portal. Keep in mind that over 37% of D1 rosters turned over last year. That number appears to be going up this year.

So who will be the transfers from this year’s roster?

Well the two returners who gave any meaningful minutes during the Big Ten portion of the schedule are Battle and Thompson. Losing either of them seems unlikely and the loss of Battle would be pretty significant.

Isaiah Ihnen and Parker Fox both spent the season recovering from major injury. They are poised to return and contribute. More on them later, but a transfer out seems unlikely for both of them.

This leaves us with 2 players. Danny Ogele and Abdoulaye Thiam.

I “think” that Ogele would have 1 more year to play if he wanted to. His first season at D2 Mercyhurst was cut short by an injury, so assuming he had a medical redshirt, he would be able to play one more season. If that’s the case, does he want to go to another program where playing time may be more attainable? Does he want to play one more season for a Big Ten program in a similar role to last year? Or does he want to take his degree and go home, moving on with this young-adult life.

Then it brings us to Thiam. An energetic and springy guard who has 3 more seasons yet of eligibility. He is credited with shooting 48% from three during his one JUCO season and there was hope that he would add some offense to this year’s Gopher squad. But Thiam was never able to crack the tight rotation. So does he see playing time is going to be limited and decide to go elsewhere? Maybe. Does he continue to do the things that are asked of him and trust that he’ll be a regular contributor sooner than later? Maybe. He’s likely the biggest transfer risk.

Who transfers in?

There are at least 8 open scholarships, 4 of which are taken by incoming freshmen. So Ben Johnson and staff have likely 4 scholarships available to accommodate for incoming transfers. So this is the fun part...who comes to be a Gopher?

First we need to understand what is needed. And the two biggest needs are point guard and a big man. There really are no great options for PG on the current roster, so the staff desperately needs to find a starting caliber point. A point and a big man would be the priorities. After that, I think the need for more talent and talent that fits into what they are trying to do, would be welcome.

There are 2 big names that are potential transfer candidates. Both are currently on the North Carolina Tar Heels roster and both are former Minnesota high school players who were heavily recruited by the former Gopher staff. Neither have officially declared for the transfer portal, this is purely speculation.

Kerwin Walton committed to UNC out of high school, played over 20 minutes per game as a freshman last year but then this season in February saw his minutes vanish. In the Tar Heels NCAA Tournament run he played just 1 minute in the team’s final 3 games. Because of this decline in minutes, there is speculation that he may be desiring to transfer. And perhaps he’d be excited to play for Ben Johnson and the Gophers.

Dawson Garcia spent his freshman year at Marquette before transferring to UNC for this season. He started 12 games for the Tar Heels and was averaging 9 points and 5.5 rebounds before leaving the team in mid-January to return home for some family stuff. Unclear if there is more to the story, but again there is speculation that he may be soon hitting the portal. And perhaps he too would like to return to Minnesota and play in the Big Ten.

After those two big names, the Gophers are getting their name in the mix with quite a few other low and mid-major players who have hit the portal already.

  • PG - Nick Honor - Clemson - Clemson was his 2nd team in as many years but a starting caliber PG from a P5 program would be really good us. Honor would have 2 years left to play.
  • PG - Sam Sessoms - Penn State - Has included the Gophers in his final 6 along with Michigan, Mississippi State and a few mid-majors. Sessoms would have just 1 year left to play.
  • PG - Kyrell Luc - Holy Cross - was the Patriot League Rookie of the Year and averaged 13 ppg. Luc would have 3 seasons left to play.
  • G - Cam Spencer - Loyola Maryland - 1st team All Patriot league averaging almost 19 ppg. Spencer would have 2 years of eligibility.
  • F - Michael Jones - Davidson - former Woodbury prep standout, shot over 42% from three, started all 34 games for the A10 champs. Jones would have 2 years to play.
  • PG - Ryan Larson - Wofford - would have 1 year to play and at the very least would provide PG depth.

There are so many other names that are popping up as the portal grows with every hour. These were just a few highlighted names, but expect the Gopher staff to be very active in the portal.

What can we expect from the incoming freshmen?

This really may be a better question for the fall, when we begin to preview the season. But this incoming freshman class is really important to the foundation of the program. Adding several 1-year transfers every season is not a way to build a foundation and create sustained success.

The question really is going to be, how ready are these guys going to be to play Big Ten basketball? Of the four coming in, can 2 or 3 of them be ready to play and help increase the overall talent of the program?

Depending on where you look for rankings and player ratings, these guys are all basically 3-star recruits who rank in the 150-250 range. These are all good players, they all had offers from other P5 programs and could all turn out to be very good Big Ten players. We will touch more on this at a later date, but if the staff hits on a couple of these freshmen, if they turn into impact players, then the 2022-23 season begins to look very different.

What can we get from the injured players?

We can’t forget about Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen. Two guys who would have most certainly helped in the depleted and thin frontcourt this past year. By the time we roll into practice next October, both of these guys will be more than a year removed from their injury. How much are they going to not only play but contribute?

Ideally they are both healthy and talented enough to be a part of the regular rotation, giving the staff two guys capable of playing inside and hopefully adding depth. This year’s iron 6 was not ideal. Getting Fox and Ihnen back and playing well will go a long way towards next year’s team being able to go 7 or 8 deep.

What did the staff learn?

This is the first of 2 offseason questions I have for the coaching staff? This was clearly Ben Johnson’s first ever season as a head coach. We heard so many interviews last offseason asking him what kinds of things surprised him or what he was learning on the fly.

But far more important than how was he adjusting to season 1 is what did he learn for season 2?

I would imagine it is vaguely similar to a player going from their freshman to sophomore season. Now the second time through you have a much better understanding of what is expected of you on the court and off. You’ve learned how to manage your time and hopefully you’ve learned what kind of habits you need to employ if you want to be successful.

Well the same applied for Coach Johnson and the rest of his staff. Now he should have a better understanding of how his time should be structured, how he and his assistants communicate and hopefully he’s learned how to do it better this year.

This extends to the staff as well. A year ago right now they were getting to know each other, refining their recruiting pitches, figuring out who does what and who does it best. While simultaneously trying to get 13 scholarship players on the roster. The second time around should be better.

What can we do with player development?

We really have no idea if this staff is going to be good at developing their players. Some coaches are very good at using the offseason to really get more from within. Wisconsin is lauded for this. I feel strongly that Ed Conroy was very good at big man development from the Pitino staff. Does this staff have the ability to make their own guys better?

Can they get Thiam to player better defense and find a good shot within the offense? If so, he could go from a non-contributor to someone valuable to this team’s success.

Can Treyton Thompson go from a few flashes of being good, to being a consistent producer on both ends of the floor?

I don’t really expect more statistical improvement from Battle, who averaged over 17 points and 6 rebounds per game. But can he improve his FG%? Can he be a better defender? Can he increase his assists by finding teammates at the right times? Maybe he averages only 16 points per game next year, but overall he helps his teammates score 4 more points per game.

This will be interesting and another key question to be answered in the offseason.