Updated November 5, 2023
The Gophers have been playing Big Ten basketball for over 115 years. A last place finish this winter in the Big Ten standings (all but certain) will be the program’s second straight in the basement.
That’s never happened before but the 2023 Gophers are historically bad. They have one conference win after last night’s embarrassing 81-46 loss to Maryland—the largest margin of defeat ever for a Minnesota Big Ten home game.
No Gopher team since World War II has won only one conference game. Minnesota’s record is 7-15 overall, 1-11 in league games and the Gophers are stumbling through a seven game Big Ten losing streak.
There are eight games remaining on the regular season schedule and the Gophers are expected to lose them all. They might not but Minnesota faces an ambitious challenge trying to match last season’s dismal 4-16 conference record.
The results of head coach Ben Johnson’s first two seasons leading the program are painful and they substantiate concerns of critics about his hire as a former college assistant with no experience leading a program. But let’s be clear: he is going to be the Gopher head coach for the foreseeable future.
How long? If Johnson directs the program into a competitive position where the Gophers are contending annually for upper-level positioning in the standings, he will be a hero and working in Dinkytown indefinitely. But if the program can’t come out of the abyss by next winter, then athletic director Mark Coyle could be thinking of a change, or one additional trial season for the 42-year-old Minneapolis native.
It’s delusional to think Johnson will be terminated after this season. Also, Coyle doesn’t do knee-jerk reactions with coaches he hires. Patience with men’s basketball will be the mantra for a while. This comes in an environment where interest in the program has reached apathy status and program revenues are light years from their potential in an athletic department that counts on basketball to be a cash cow to help the budgets of other sports.
Johnson’s supporters argue he has a difficult task with a program rebuild. Previous coach Richard Pitino was fired after the 2020-2021 season, with his last team producing a 6-14 Big Ten record. Only once in eight seasons did Pitino win more than half of his conference games.
Johnson didn’t want to or couldn’t retain key leftover personnel in center Liam Robbins, and guards Marcus Carr and Gabe Kalscheur. Collectively, their talent surpasses any Johnson and staff have brought to town so far.
In the college sports transfer portal era, there is more potential than ever to successfully remake a roster in a hurry. Johnson scored with transfers Jamison Battle and Payton Willis in 2021, and with Dawson Garcia last offseason, but overall has come up short in filling needs.
So far players coming in from high school haven’t been difference makers. The present freshmen class is the first one Johnson and his assistants had a head start in recruiting. The first-year group is an athletic bunch but on the court they lack cohesiveness, judgment and scoring skills.
Forward-center Pharrel Payne is 6-foot-9, the other three freshmen are 6-4 to 6-7 and are also similar in offensive abilities as shown so far. Braeden Carrington, Jaden Henley and Joshua Ola-Joseph look athletic driving to the basket but don’t convert consistently and show minimal outside shooting accuracy.
The roster not only lacks talent and experience, but the pieces don’t complement one another. The Gophers don’t excel at any aspect of play. Offense, defense, rebounding and playmaking are all subpar. Even the free throw shooting is atrocious, with Minnesota making 60.9 percent of attempts and ranking No. 352 in the nation.
It’s dicey to question the effort of players but it’s easier to comment on focus and mental lapses. In last night’s debacle the Gophers made one of their 16 turnovers when they errored (against no pressure) inbounding the basketball after a made Maryland basket. In another game, a Gopher player was backdoored three times for scores in less than 10 minutes of playing time.
As limited as the personnel is, the Gophers should be playing better than a team that has consecutive losses twice by 35 points and once by 20. Questions can be asked about the impact of the coaching regarding ball movement, cuts to the basket, creating open shots, second chance points, offensive and defensive rebounding, minimizing turnovers, forcing turnovers, covering open spaces in the zone defense, defensive switches, lack of defensive intensity and team confidence.
Injuries have sidelined two Gophers, forwards Isaiah Ihnen and Parker Fox, for two consecutive seasons. Difficult to know what difference their presence would have made. Ihnen has averaged 3.1 points in two previous seasons. Fox has yet to play Division I basketball after a high scoring Division II career.
As of late both Carrington and Dawson haven’t played because of injuries. Dawson’s absence, as the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, is significant but he could play as soon as Tuesday night at Illinois. With Dawson in the lineup the Gophers defeated Ohio State and had three league losses by a combined nine points.
For the more optimistic Gophers fans, it’s wait for next year mode. That’s when hyped center Dennis Evans and shooting guard Cameron Christie arrive. Evans, perhaps the best prep center in the country, will help the interior defense a lot and Christie, a prep sharpshooter, is a welcome addition to a team that can’t shoot straight (41.4 percent on field goals, ranking No. 315 nationally).
But like they say on Wall Street, there are no guarantees for the future. In addition to Evans and Christie, the Gophers need to add more potentially effective players. They also need to retain the ones they have, including Battle, Garcia and the current freshmen.
It’s been suggested the Gophers can’t win for awhile because the program is too low. But it only takes a couple of the right players and the right coaching to throw the switch, though. Quick turnarounds happen every year in college basketball.
With Gophers fans wondering if this is the historically worst of Gopher basketball, positive changes can’t come soon enough.