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Minnesota Basketball: TDG writer roundtable and the season gets started

The season has started, how do we feel about the state of the program and how year three will go?

NCAA Basketball: Bethune-Cookman at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Gopher hoops has started the season 2-0 and perhaps this team is going to surpass last year’s level of success. A few new faces, some returning talent and year 3 of the Ben Johnson tenure.

Our passionate team of Hoops bloggers decided to answer a few questions about this year’s team and what we can expect.

Before we dive into this season, how did you recover from last year’s unwatchable season?

GopherNation: It was a rough one! Imagine having to write articles about it and semi-cover that team? It was easy to become emotionally detached from that team and season, ready to move on and hopefully see something better.

UStreet: What season? I don’t recall a college basketball season last year.

ZipsofAkron: I vowed to reduce the amount of time and energy I spent with the Gopher basketball program, which was easy to do in the offseason. Of course, once November rolled around I found myself buying a BTN+ subscription just to watch the Bethune-Cookman game and moved my evening plans around to watch UTSA, so you can say my New Season Resolution is already going well.

There is quite a bit of talk about the temperature on Ben Johnson’s coaching seat this year. Do you think his job is in jeopardy this season?

GopherNation: I think talk of Johnson losing his job is overblown and think it would be highly unlikely. Can he endure another 2-win Big Ten season with a 12-game losing streak? Probably not. But I think even the slightest improvement buys him another year.

This program has always shown patience. And I know that Mark Coyle was not always that guy demonstrating the patience, but this was also his guy. His guy who had his entire roster turnover over in year 1. I just don’t see a change after 3 seasons. Last year was really ugly but there have been some recruiting wins and year 1 was a team that seemed to overachieve.

It would have to be really bad to see a change this year. Next year however, will be a very different story.

UStreet: Yes, in the sense that basketball revenue will continue to be affected by poor play and the nature of NIL and recruiting has changed the amount of time available for a coach to have “their guys” in place.

I am not going to whine in any level of detail about NIL. Teams were cheating before in recruiting and they are now still cheating but at least in a way that players who provide labor value are compensated above board in ways they were not before. However, NIL as currently practiced has (and will continue to) exacerbated the differences between programs. Minnesota does not have a network of individuals and businesses who are stupid enough to think that giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to college athletes will generate a positive ROI. That is unfortunate because it means that the Gophers will lose out on talent, but also means that it is hard to evaluate how many seasons a coach should get.

For Johnson and staff, that means an even greater focus on development of players and playing a brand of watchable basketball. Last season, which of course did not happen and I in no way remember, was not watchable. If the team plays similarly this season I think Johnson’s seat is exceedingly hot.

ZipsofAkron: The traditional “hot seat” timeline is a definitely different for Johnson. First off, his first year can barely be counted as a season since he had 99% roster turnover and oversaw a team that was stitched together from the mid- and low-major clearance rack. And if we are counting that as a season then I’d say it was successful since they received actual Top 25 votes at one point. In my opinion, last year was his first year, and though it went very poorly, I feel like we need to cover our ears and pretend that we are now in his second season. Would you fire a new coach after two bad seasons where he literally started with nothing? It doesn’t seem fair.

He was brought in to recruit and he has done fine on that front. Dennis Evans leaving them high and dry was not Johnson’s fault, and if NIL was not in play he would have brought in an actual 5-star recruit. That’s crazy! Now, woulda/shouldas aside he brought in two four-stars in Pharrel Payne and Cam Christie, 2022 Mr. Basketball Braeden Carrington and (soon) Isaac Asuma, not to mention Dawson Garcia transferring in. That is a good haul considering the landscape we have to operate in now. If the team is once again obviously the worst in the conference and players are not getting better then maybe you make next season a make-or-break year, but I’d hardly say he’s even on a warm seat this year.

Three sophomores on this team showed some promise last year. Among Pharrel Payne, Joshua Ola-Joseph and Braeden Carrington, who do you think takes the biggest step forward this season?

GopherNation: My hope is that Carrington is the one who takes a big step. I think he was the one who needed the most time to adjust to the Big Ten and it would be a huge asset to this team if he takes 2 or 3 steps forward in his development. If he can make more shots and if he can be a leader on the defensive end, that will do more for helping this team become competitive in the Big Ten than anything else.

I’d like to see Payne be more of a threat in the post and learn to not foul. And for Ola-Joseph, he needs to reduce turnovers and make free throws.

UStreet: Relative to their performance last season, Carrington. I think he has potential to be a Gabe Kalscheur like defender. In terms of who will be the best of the trio, Payne without a doubt.

ZipsofAkron: Man, that’s tough. My heart says Payne because I think his leap will be massive if everything clicks, but my head says Carrington because he started from such a low point. He had a tough shooting year last year and never really looked comfortable, and even overmatched at times. Even two games into this season he appears more confident and has some sick new hair, even if his effort isn’t showing up in the box score. He will be a key guy to track this year.

Turning to the newcomers, there were three guards brought in this offseason. I’m talking about the two transfer point guards and Cam Christie. Who has the biggest impact and has Ben Johnson finally found a reliable point guard?

GopherNation: To be honest, before the start of the season I would have gone with Mitchell. I love his length, he played in a solid conference where he had success at the point and he brings really good three-point shooting.

Now, Christie looked really good in the second game for Minnesota. So he appears to be the obvious answer. He looked very confident and smooth out there.

But the need for quality point guard play is very real. I love having two guys like Hawkins and Mitchell who can make each other better everyday and gives us some depth should we lose one of them for a few games. All three of these guards are making us better.

UStreet: It is well known within our Slack channel that I think Cam Christie is going to be fantastic so I am not going to change from that opinion publicly. From a pure impact stand point I hold strongly to the view that a good point guard is the most important factor in a Big Ten team’s success. From that vantage, Elijah Hawkins is going to have the biggest impact (positively or negatively). I liked what I saw against Bethune Cookman, but I’m still not sold that the team has a reliable point guard.

ZipsofAkron: While I want to anoint Cam Christie the second coming after his breakout performance, I have a hard and fast rule that I never expect true freshmen to make an impact. I really hope to be surprised on that front this year because Christie looked like he was already game-ready in his debut. With that said, I’m going with Mike Mitchell Jr. who can both score and deliver. Will his game translate from the West Coast Conference into Big Ten play? At the very least, he is showing that he can be counted on to hit a three-pointer or two, which is a wrinkle I don’t think we’ve had in quite a while.

So we have a nice little 2-0 start to the season. What have you liked so far and what still has you concerned?

GopherNation: It is the offense that has really been most impressive. This team is attacking the rim, getting to the line and then making their free throws. And even more encouraging is that they are making threes as a much higher percentage. Let’s also not forget about Dawson Garcia who is averaging 22.5 while shooting efficiently and rebounding the ball.

What concerns me are turnovers and health. We need Payne to be healthy and playing big minutes. If Jack Wilson is playing nearly the same amount of total minutes as Payne, we are in trouble. The turnover problem speaks for itself. The point guards have to be better.

UStreet: Look at Zips pulling out a thesaurus below.

The ball moves and as a consequence the team has aesthetically been fun to watch so far this year. My general view is if I am going to watch a team that is unlikely to win lots of games, they should at least be interesting. The Gophers have the potential to be interesting on a nightly basis. Plus Isaiah Ihnen is currently shooting 83% from deep, which is completely sustainable and I will hear no arguments.

Defensively they’re still a mess, though Pharrel Payne’s eventual return should stabilize defensive rebounding.

ZipsofAkron: Check out the Minnesota KenPom page and look at how verdant it is. I don’t think I’ve seen that much green on that page since 2017. GopherNation laid it out above, but the offense has looked suspiciously competent through two games. But what is standing out to me is how Dawson Garcia is clearly “the guy” out there and I think that is an important caveat to the season. He and Jamison Battle did not complement each other on the court last year and you saw the results when your two best players can’t mesh. Thus far, it looks like there is a clear strategy to get Garcia a touch or two on every possession. With fewer mouths to feed from a volume standpoint, I’m hopeful that he build some momentum in-game and know that he’ll get plenty of opportunities to make an impact. Thus far you’ve seen him get the green light to attack the basket and get to the line, and the results have been impressive.

On the other side, they have given up a concerning amount of offensive rebounds to opponents already this year, particularly against Bethune-Cookman (something I never thought I’d say). It was a huge problem last year so I’m hoping it gets quelled in the first few games here.

Lastly, what are your predictions for the season?

GopherNation: I think January and February are going to be tough. Probably a handful of close losses. But the back half of February and March, this team might go on a little run in their final 7 games of the regular season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them surging into bubble conversation. The key games are those first two Big Ten games in December and those final 7 after they come back from Purdue. I think the ceiling of this team is 8 wins in conference, more likely to have 6.

UStreet: Third tier in the conference standings. If this team has a bye in the Big Ten Tournament, Johnson should be the National Coach of the Year.

ZipsofAkron: You may not know it by my Twitter avatar, but I have been accused to being overly optimistic when it comes to Gopher basketball expectations. I thought they’d be in the NIT conversation last year and I was so far off that it’s concerning. So, to temper my expectations this year I’m just hoping they get out of the conference basement. GopherNation seems to think that they will be much better than that, and he is generally more accurate on things like this than I am.