Last season got off to an inauspicious start as the Gophers rode the struggle bus and escaped with a one-point victory over a bad Western Michigan team, a performance that would portend one of the worst seasons in the program’s history.
With nowhere to go but up, however, Minnesota kicked off the 2023-24 season in style, stomping the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats 80-60 in a season opening victory. The game looked like it would be a cakewalk at the halftime break, with the Gophers taking a 24-point lead to the locker room. But the Wildcats did not go away, and dialed up the defensive pressure against what became a sloppy, sleepwalking Minnesota team. Bethune would eventually cut the lead to 10 points late in the second half as the Gophers reeled, but Dawson Garcia was a steady presence at the free throw line and kept things afloat. He finished with an impressive 23 points, 14 rebounds and 6 assists in 35 minutes.
The Gophers defense finally woke up and held the Wildcats without a field goal for the final four minutes of the game while going on their own offensive run to ice things and begin the season 1-0.
No one is going to mistake the Wildcats — picked to finish near the bottom of one of the worst conferences in the country — as any sort of non-conference giant, but stepping all over a bad non-conference opponent is not something the team has done under coach Ben Johnson, so at the VERY LEAST it’s a minor step in the right direction.
Speaking of “who is this team and what have you done with the real Gophers”, Minnesota shot a respectable 52% from the field and Garcia nearly secured a double-double in the first half, while ending up as the game’s leading scorer and rebounder. And how about this? The team shot 77% from the free throw line.
It wasn’t all fun. It was the first game of the season so some rust-shaking was expected. The turnovers were still there in droves (17), the jump shooting was questionable and Isaiah Ihnen looked like a guy who hadn’t played in a couple years. A better team would have made Minnesota pay for its slow second half. Still, the Gophers showed that they can dominate an inferior team, which is more than they could say last year.
Interestingly, for the majority of the second half newcomers Mike Mitchell and Elijah Hawkins were on the court, presumably as the key ballhandlers, while Pharrel Payne and Joshua Ola-Joseph rode the bench. In fact, Payne didn’t play for the final 17 minutes while JOJ was on the bench for the final 15. We’ll see how playing time nets out but that is something to track, especially since Ola-Joseph appeared to have a very competent, energy-giving presence in the first half.
Looking ahead, the non-conference schedule is hardly challenging, so Minnesota should at least be expected to grab several easy wins, and if tonight is any indication they may win many of those walking away.