It is no secret that last season’s Gopher basketball season was a tough one to get through. Certainly a challenge from a fan’s perspective, but I’m sure it was also a long and difficult season for the team as well. That season mercifully ended with a loss to Maryland in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Last year’s squad had just 3 wins over a Big Ten team and finished 9-22 overall.
It is worth noting that they did manage to get 2 of those Big Ten wins in the final 4 games of the season (including the Big Ten Tournament). There were signs that Ben Johnson’s young team was getting better. But how will that translate into this season?
The Gophers have their lone exhibition game on Thursday and start the season next Monday against Bethune Cookman. There are several questions I have as the new season will be here before you know it. But first, here’s a refresher of the roster turnover from last year.
Gone from last season
- Jamison Battle - transferring again, this time to Ohio State
- Ta’lon Cooper - trasferred to South Carolina
- Jaden Henley - transferred to DePaul
- Taurus Samuels - expired eligibility
- Treyton Thompson - transferred to Steson
- Dawson Garcia - junior
- Pharrel Payne - sophomore
- Braeden Carrington - sophomore
- Josh Ola-Joseph - sophomore
- Parker Fox - coming off major knee injury and missed all of last season
- Isaiah Ihnen - coming off major knee injury and missed all of last season
- Kadyn Betts - redshirted last year
New to the Roster
- Elijah Hawkins - point guard from Howard
- Mike Mitchell Jr - point guard from Pepperdine
- Cam Christie - true freshman and highly rated shooting guard
- Kris Keinys - late addition to the freshman class, from Lithuania
- Jack Wilson - big man transfer from Washington
Those are the names you’ll see starting next week, but there are a ton of questions about this team and what we can expect throughout the season. Ben Johnson will basically get a core of 4 players who played a lot last year, plus a few newcomers and then 2 who have been injured for a couple seasons.
How much has the sophomore core improved?
It used to be a tried and true adage that college basketball players made their biggest jump in improvement from their freshman to their sophomore seasons. And that still can occur, even in an era where freshmen often have a huge impact (more on that in a minute). But the Gophers had 3 freshmen last year who played significant minutes and showed that they are going to be quality players over 4 collegiate seasons.
Payne has the size and ability to be a regular double-double player and a very good Big Ten post. Ola-Joseph has great size and athleticism while still being very controlled and strong. Carrington was maybe the most disappointing of last year’s freshmen, but a year of added strength while adjusting to the speed of the game is going to be huge for him.
I really expect that the improvement of this sophomore core is the key to the upcoming season. All three should have more confidence and be able to play with more freedom. Watch for all three to take big steps forward.
Will this team shoot (and make?) more threes?
There were 2 teams in the Big Ten who took fewer than 600 threes last season. Minnesota and Indiana. The Hoosiers had big man Trayce Jackson-Davis who was 1st team All-Big Ten and the Hoosiers finished with the best FG% in the Big Ten. And although they didn’t take very many, they finished 4th in the league in 3pt FG%. So they made up for their lack of attempts by being more efficient and pounding it inside.
The Gophers took only 591 threes and they finished 10th in 3 pt FG%. So the question is, are they going to find ways to get more open looks from three and will they make a higher percentage? This question is a little bit about system and a little about the players. We will get to the system next, but will they have better shooters on the roster?
True freshman, Cam Christie is supposed to be a good shooter and should help in that department immediately. Mike Mitchell shot 44% a year ago with 166 attempts and Hawkins was 46% while taking 116 shots, both should help quite a bit with the team’s overall shooting from deep. And I feel strongly that you are going to see a significant bump in 3pt% from Carrington as he adjusts to playing this level of basketball.
Will they take more? That remains to be seen.
Will this team have an identity?
This is where we really get into the heart of the “system” conversation. Not only did last year’s team really lack any sort of identity, but they often seemed to be drifting on both ends of the floor and not playing with much of a purpose. From game to game, it was difficult to ascertain what it was they were even trying to do on offense.
When Ben Johnson took over he said that he wanted a toughness identity. He wanted “dudes.” Two years in and I’m not sure what that is going to look like, but I don’t think it was it last year.
In year one, it appeared to be that they were trying to find mismatches and get the ball to Jamison Battle in advantageous positions. Year two? I think the experiment of trying to integrate Battle and Garcia, left the team without a clear direction.
What about this year? What is their offensive system going to be? Are they going to have a great inside-out game that pounds it inside to Payne to loosen up the perimeter for shooters? I don't think we have the athletes to be attacking the rim and kicking, but great motion and maybe some high-low action between Garcia and Payne?
And that’s just on offense. But are we a tough team? Are we a defensive-minded team? Are we a determined rebounding team? An affirmative answer to any of those questions would help this team tremendously.
This question of identity is really several questions.
Who starts and what is the rotation?
Time to take a guess at who we will see starting and part of the regular rotation.
PG - Mitchell Jr
SG - Carrington
F - Ola-Joseph
F - Garcia
C - Payne
Point guard is a bigger question mark, but based on prior experience and playing level, it’s my guess that Mitchell starts. But it would not at all be surprising if it's Hawkins, or even if it’s Carrington with someone else plugging into SG.
Off the bench, it gets murkier.
B - Hawkins
B - Christie
B - Ihnen
B - Fox
B - Betts
Hawkins and Christie will see far more minutes than the rest of the guys on this list. I suspect that when Payne is getting a breather or in foul trouble, Garcia rolls to play an athletic 5 while Ola-Joseph moves to the 4.
Fox and Ihnen are huge question marks after missing two seasons due to knee injuries. Maybe they play and contribute? Maybe they just aren’t able to play at this level anymore.
Will they have a go-to scorer?
The short answer here is, probably not. And this may be a significant problem.
If they need a big basket in the early part of the season, I’m guessing it is Garcia who gets the call. As we get deeper into the season, maybe a perimeter player starts to show he’s capable, but Garcia is going to be their most dynamic offensive player.
What can we expect?
This is the million-dollar question. Looking for optimism? I have some optimism for you.
The year after Richard Pitino’s worst season, he was a 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament. He was 2-16 in the Big Tein in his third season, finished 24-10 the next. The year after Tubby Smith’s worst season coaching the Gophers, he made the Big Dance as a 10-seed (in his 2nd season). Even Dan Monson pulled off this feat. In his 5th season he went 3-13, his 6th he was an 8-seed where he lost to Iowa State.
So...Ben Johnson had one of the worst Gopher seasons in a generation or two, does this mean he’s primed for a turnaround and NCAA Tourney bid?
Not likely. Sorry. But maybe?
I think the ceiling on this team is to be a bubble team that sneaks in. But really that means everything has to go right. No injuries, a team that is cohesive and plays great together, a team that plays better defense and makes a dramatic leap in shooting percentage (from three and from the free throw line).
It’s possible. I’ve been saying since January that this year’s team will be markedly better. But it’ll look more like six or seven Big Ten wins and an NIT bid.