There was no doubt that Ben Johnson was going to struggle in year 1 as head coach of the Gopher basketball program. Not simply because he was going to be a first-time head coach, tasked with leading Big Ten program. But due to transfers and injuries, he was completely reconstructing a roster that was expected to compete in arguably the toughest basketball conference in the country.
Struggles were expected in year 1.
But expectations were surpassed in that first year. Especially early in the season when the Gophers sprinted to a 10-1 record with wins over a ranked Mississippi St team and Michigan, both games on the road.
Eventually, the wheels fell off the bus and Johnson’t first season ended with a 4-16 Big Ten record.
With a more talented recruiting class coming in, some nice additions from the transfer portal and Jamison Battle with eligibility remaining, there was hope that year 2 would be a step toward being more competitive and building this Gopher program.
But year 2 has been a disaster. This Gopher team is worse by nearly every metric. What has gone wrong?
Is it talent?
I think it is hard to argue against the notion that there is more talent on this year’s roster. Last season the Gophers really got a great final year out of Payton Willis and Battle ended up being an All-Big Ten caliber player. But the rest of the roster was a hodge-podge of kids who transferred up a level. The overall talent and depth of last year’s squad was very limited.
PG - Payton Willis
SG - Luke Loewe
SF - Sean Sutherlin
PF - Jamison Battle
C - Eric Curry
B - Eylijah Stephens
Through the offseason, Ben Johnson and staff added some talented freshmen and brought in Dawson Garcia as a transfer. The talent on this year’s roster is unquestionably better at every position except point guard.
PG - Ta’lon Cooper
SG - Braedon Carrington
SF - Josh Ola-Joseph
PF - Battle
C - Garcia
B - Pharrel Payne
B - Taurus Samuels
B - Jaden Henley
The bench is better, the starting lineup is more talented and this is a team that on paper should be more ready to compete at a Big Ten level. Is this a collection of talent to be near the top of the conference or even fighting for an NCAA Tournament bid? No, not really. But is this roster more athletic and more gifted than last year’s? It is.
So it must be the coaching, right?
Harder to say. The same coaching staff that got more out of less, is now getting less out of a little more. So...is that on the coaching staff or the players?
Probably a little of both.
I do think that last year’s roster had a higher basketball IQ than this year’s. This may be the primary reason they were able to earn some wins over more talented teams. And that may be as much to do with this year’s youth & inexperience as it does anything else. Loewe and Sutherlin were heady players who knew how to play within themselves and were also experienced playing at this level. Even with a step up from mid-major programs into a Big Ten program, they knew how to prepare themselves and play here.
Last year’s team was adept at running their offensive sets with purpose and knowing how and when to get the ball to the right person, typically Battle. The sets they were taught were run with a level of detail and they were able to achieve some level of success on both ends. Defensively they knew how to work together and be in the right spots to earn stops.
Eventually, a lack of talent caught up with them. The Big Ten was a grind and that team was exposed.
Is it simply just inexperience?
This year has more talent but the execution has been sloppy. Look at some of the key statistical areas where this team is dramatically struggling.
Turnovers are a major problem. This is primarily coming from the new faces. Payne, Henley and Ola-Joseph are all turning it over at alarming rates. Much of this I will attribute to the adjustment from high school to the Big Ten. A lot of freshmen face this adjustment, some adjust better than others. But trying to move at a faster speed while the brain isn’t ready to process things at that same speed is going to contribute to turnovers and not shooting very well. Even if that increased speed is slight.
Field goal percentage (from inside the line and from three) is not very good, suggesting that shot selection and getting the ball to the right people in the right places at the right time is not happening enough.
Defensive rebounding, similar to the turnover problem, can be attributed to the youth and inexperience. Guys like Payne and Ola-Joseph have their heads spinning on defense and then are a 1⁄2 step slow to get into position to rebound while the opposition is a 1⁄2 step closer to getting an offensive rebound.
Many of these things are slight and not obvious to the naked eye. But often times there is an adjustment to the speed and physicality of stepping up a level, especially when it is a big step. Look at this team defensively, which statistically is relatively close to what it was a season ago. Rotations are a fraction slower, closeouts are late and this more athletically gifted team struggles to stop teams.
Is there a solution?
Not for this year. But there are two things I’m hoping to see.
One, I would like to see this team get noticeably better by the end of this season. Especially the young guys. Will this mean more wins? Not likely, I think this team gets 1 more win this year. But we can start to see some of the guys get better, adjust to the speed and physicality of the Big Ten.
Getting better will be a credit to the coaching staff.
Secondly, I want to see a big jump next year. We have all seen players dramatically improve from their freshman to sophomore seasons. This used to be the norm. A year of learning how to manage your day, what the coaching staff expects from you and most importantly the game begins to slow down for you when you can adjust to the speed and physicality. This is a physical and mental adjustment.
For some freshmen, this adjustment happens quickly. Maybe immediately. Others, it becomes realized in year 2. For guys like Ola-Joseph, Carrington, Payne and Henley; the hope is that we see a big jump in year 2. Imagine of all 4 of those guys take a noticeable step forward next year. Add in a new shooter, another impact player in the paint, you bring back Cooper at point and Battle as your leader? This team goes from a 2-win Big Ten team to middle-of-the-pack very quickly. Maybe more.
To be quite clear, I really like Payne, Ola-Joseph and Carrington as players. I think they have a bright future after needing some time to adjust.
I don’t think this team, in 2022-23, is close. This is not just a season of misfortune and they are not going to make a turnaround this season. This is a collection of players who are learning to play together and having to do it at full speed.
There are valid questions about the coaching staff and there are concerns about the level this team can compete next year. But it is early in the Ben Johnson era. Steve Pikiell endured two brutal seasons in his first two at Rutgers. Going 3-15 in each of your first two seasons is a mountain to overcome. But he has his team rolling now with one of the best defenses in the country and they might be one of the top 20 teams in the country.
This program isn’t going to get up and running in 2 seasons. It is fair to watch with a critical eye, but it may take some time.