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Minnesota Basketball: Ben Johnson was hit with the perfect storm, can he get the Gopher program back on track?

The challenges facing Ben Johnson after 2 years leading the Gopher program

Super Typhoon Haiyan Slams Into Philippines Photo by NOAA via Getty Images

Ben Johnson was hired exactly two years ago today. His overall record over two seasons leading the Gopher men’s program is just 22-39 with a Big Ten record of 6-33 (.154). That is...not great.

As the Ben Johnson era begins its third season, we appear to be headed into another offseason of significant roster turnover. Since day one, he has been constantly battling to replace significant portions of his roster during each offseason. This repeated turnover appears to be the biggest hurdle this staff has had to face as they try to return to being a competitive Big Ten program.

Through the previous head coaching tenures we have looked for excuses as to what has kept them from taking another step forward or perhaps why they take steps backward after 3 or 4 seasons.

Tubby Smith was hit with unfortunate injuries as his team went 1-10 over their last 11 games in 2011, his 4th season as the Gopher’s head coach. Injuries derailed 2012 as well.

Richard Pitino bottomed out at 2-16 in the conference during his 3rd season (2016) because of some huge recruiting misses at the end of the Tubby tenure.

Now Ben Johnson is faced with a very real problem with his roster from season to season. Is this the result of something he is doing? Or was he hired amidst the perfect storm of factors that have conspired against him?

For now, I’m willing to give him the benefit of doubt and blame this on that perfect storm. But can he find a way out of this?

The Perfect Storm

I keep mentioning this perfect storm of factors that hit just as Johnson was hired. What do I mean? Well, it was a combination of teams having upper-classmen who were given a bonus year of eligibility due to Covid. Plus the NCAA allowing a blanket transfer waiver for everyone to change schools without having to sit for a year. Plus NIL deals becoming a prevalent force in the recruitment of high school kids as well as transfers. Add those things to a program that just fired its coach and you have a recipe for a really challenging situation.

The roster that was left when Mark Coyle fired Richard Pitino was actually solid.

  • Jamal Mashburn Jr - followed Pitino to New Mexico and he was recently named 1st Team All-Mountain West as a junior
  • Marcus Carr - transferred to Texas and was named 1st Team All-Big 12. He is still playing in the Sweet 16.
  • Gabe Kalscheur - went to Iowa State and was just awarded 2nd Team All-Big 12
  • Liam Robbins - left for Vanderbilt and was 1st Team All-SEC this season
  • Brandon Johnson - played 1 season for DePaul where he started every game

That is actually a damn good starting 5 but all were given an extra year to play college basketball and all were allowed to transfer without sitting out a season. So rather than be a part of the transition under Johnson, all chose to find programs they felt were better fits and allowed them to be competitive in their final years of college basketball.

Good for them. Bad for Ben Johnson. Those five transferred but so did Tre Williams, Martice Mitchell, Jarvis Omersa, Both Gach and Sam Freeman. Those losses were not nearly as detrimental, but it left Johnson with just Eric Curry and Isaiah Ihnen on the roster and a lot of holes to fill.

The transfer portal hath taken. But the transfer portal also giveth. With only Treyton Thompson coming in as a freshman out of high school, Johnson had to hit the portal to fill out his roster.

Jamison Battle, Luke Loewe, Eylijah Stephenson and the return of Payton Willis turned out to all be excellent additions. The team played above expectations and there was reason for optimism for year two when a talented recruiting class was on its way in. The problem was that all of them except Battle were only going to be able to play for 1 season. And the cycle repeats.

The transfer portal has been around for several years now, but take a look at how its usage has increased over the last few years. The year that Johnson took over the program, there was a 71% jump in transfers from 2020 to 2021. Just using round numbers, those 1,710 transfers meant that there was nearly 40% roster turnover across all of D1 basketball. This dramatic jump was largely due to the free transfer without penalty and the incredible roster turnover across all of NCAA basketball may be here to stay.

Transfer portal numbers

Johnson came in, having minimal relationships with Pitino’s roster and those guys had very little incentive to stick around and build the Gopher program when the coach who recruited them was being shown the door. This meant that Johnson was replacing guys who would eventually be 1st Team All-Big 12 or SEC with guys from the Patriot League and the Colonial.

Now the answer to this problem is to build a base of high school recruits. Get your roster management back to a place where you have the core players that you supplement with transfers. But of course, this is also the time when NIL became a massive factor in recruiting.

And with the University of Minnesota’s notoriously strict compliance department making NIL a very difficult endeavor for the Gopher program, we quickly fell far behind our peers in this area.

Once again, to his credit, Johnson brought in a nice class of incoming freshmen. But he was able to do this because they were mostly local, most were lightly recruited and his staff did a great job of identifying good players that were flying under the radar. Where NIL was reportedly a factor, we were unable to compete for players.

Fast forward to this current recruiting cycle when the Gopher staff was able to secure a letter of intent from a top 50 player. Dennis Evans was on the record as not being interested in NIL, he developed a great relationship with Johnson and wanted to come here and be an impact center for the Gophers. For whatever reason, he decided that he had a change of heart. He reopened his commitment and ended up choosing to play for Louisville next season.

This is the current state of college basketball. And to be honest, I can’t blame these kids for making these decisions. If they are able to transfer without penalty to immediately play for a more competitive team, they are allowed to make that choice. If they want to choose a school other than Minnesota because they are getting more cash in their pocket as a college student? Who wouldn’t do that? The players have more autonomy and that, at face value, is not a bad thing. But it makes things really difficult if you are a college basketball coach stuck in the cycle of refilling your roster with transfers year after year.

So how is this cycle broken? I think there are three necessary components. And unfortunately, a quick fix is unlikely.

First, you have to recruit high school talent and you have to do it well. Johnson’s 2022 recruiting class is very good and was exactly what he needed for step one. The problem is that he needed to back that up with a second consecutive good glass. When Evans backed out of his commitment, that left just one incoming freshman. He might be a good one, but he is just one. This 2024 class that will be committing this summer and fall will be very important.

How do they get around the NIL problem? I don’t know, I have no answer for this. That will come down to selling the right aspects of our program to the right kids who are looking for what we have to offer more than just who will give them the most money. We will not win that arms race.

Secondly, you have to retain those high school kids. You absolutely need continuity with your roster. It isn’t just about having more players with returning minutes, points and rebounds. You need to develop leaders, you need guys who know what to expect and can communicate that to the new faces. You, as a coaching staff, need to have confidence in the players you have. That comes from knowing how they will respond in practice and certain game situations. That trust, which goes both ways, comes from time.

Losing Jaden Henley stings, but it is imperative that Josh Ola-Joseph, Pharrel Payne and Braeden Carrington all return. And really we need those three as a core unit for this team for the next 2 seasons.

Lastly, you have to get lucky. I’ve said this before when discussing what it would take for Pitino to get over the hump. And Tubby, before him. Sometimes it takes just one moment of luck to completely change the course of the program. If Johnson is able to sign a nice 2024 recruiting class and keep the 2022 class intact, he is still going to need to bring in more. And as he begins to supplement his roster with transfers, he needs someone to emerge as an unexpected impact player. Maybe that is one of the transfers, maybe it is one of the high school recruits. But he needs a little luck.

If we assume that the three freshmen all improve as sophomores and we know what to expect with Dawson Garcia, what if we happen to land just 1 impact transfer point guard? Then this team begins to look different next season and there’s reason for hope that a base is being built.

If luck is not on our side, then it can still get turned around, but it is a slow build. Which makes retention more difficult and recruiting even harder.

But the next two cycles are vitally important. The first is this current transfer window and then the 2024 recruiting class. Both of those groups need to be wins.

Can Ben Johnson turn this thing around? Yes, I think he can. Will it take patience? Yes, it will.