Team: Minnesota Golden Gophers
Coach: Ben Johnson (second season)
2021-22 record: 13-17 (4-16)
Season finish: No postseason
Players returning: Jamison Battle, Parker Fox, Isaiah Ihnen, Treyton Thompson
Players departed: Payton Willis, E.J. Stephens, Luke Loewe, Eric Curry, Abdoulaye Thiam, Charlie Daniels and Sean Sutherlin
Key additions: Dawson Garcia (North Carolina), Ta’Lon Cooper (Morehead State), Taurus Samuels (Dartmouth), Pharrel Payne, Josh Ola-Joseph, Braedon Carrington, Jaden Henley
A lot of people would agree that Minnesota was the surprise of the Big Ten last season. They went 4-16 in conference play, but played a lot of close games and started the season 10-1 with wins over Michigan, Pittsburgh, and Princeton. The only loss the Gophers suffered before the new year was a single-digit loss to Michigan State. They tripped up in conference play and finished with a losing record overall, but the first year under head coach Ben Johnson turned out being an interesting and oddly successful one, as some people went as far to say they may not win a conference game.
The Gophers lost seven of their top eight scorers from last season, but do bring back their leading scorer Jamison Battle, who should be one of the top players in the conference this season. Battle averaged 17.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game last season, and single handily keep the Gophers in games at times.
Losing Payton Willis, Luke Loewe and E.J. Stephens will hurt, but the Minnesota staff did a good job hitting the transfer portal hard and filling out a solid roster for this season. Former top-30 recruit and Minnesota native Dawson Garcia comes from North Carolina, Ta’Lon Cooper is a great point guard from Morehead State and Taurus Samuels is an experienced guard from Dartmouth. Braeden Carrington is also a freshman guard that could see starting minutes this season.
Their depth will be a question after losing all that they lost, but they have a great young coach and a solid starting five that will help them compete in games.
Dawson Garcia. It has been a journey for Garcia thus far in his collegiate career, but he makes his way back to his home state of Minnesota after stops at Marquette and North Carolina. Garcia played well in both stops, specifically in his freshman year at Marquette. With the Golden Eagles, he averaged 13 points and 6.6 rebounds while averaging 30 minutes per game and starting every game he played in.
At North Carolina, Garcia was a key piece in their rotation, but only he only played in 16 games, starting in 12 of those. Garcia averaged 20 minutes with 9.0 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Even though he has played well in his first two seasons, Garcia wanted to come home and play for the state he grew up in.
“Minnesota across my chest, it’s where I grew up,” Garcia said at media day. “It’s where I’m from, and it’s what I’m fighting for,” he said. “(Having) my family and all the people I grew up with and all the people in the stands this year will be incredible.”
It is also safe to say he will be in Minnesota for the foreseeable future.
“There are some highs, some lows, but at the end of the day I got the Minnesota across my chest now,” Garcia said. “I look forward to building something special for years and years to come.”
Garcia has also made a great early impression on his teammates.
“He works his (butt) off, and I think that is something that you want as a player and you want as a teammate,” Jamison Battle said at media day. “The thing with him is the versatility he brings. He can go inside, he can stretch it out to the perimeter. Having a guy like that, with that kind of versatility, (who) can also guard a (center) in the Big Ten is something that not a lot of teams have.”
I don’t think Minnesota is a real competitor in the conference or a tournament team yet, but what Johnson has done in his first two seasons is nothing to scoff at. Bringing Garcia back to Minnesota and adding transfers like Cooper and Samuels, they are building something in Minnesota. It could be another long year after losing guys like Eric Curry, E.J. Stephens and Payton Willis, but the future looks bright with Johnson at the helm.