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Whew! Nobody Saw Gophers 7-0 Start

 

The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team goes into tomorrow night’s Big Ten opener with a 7-0 record in nonconference games. Anyone who claims they predicted such a start to the season is messing with you.

Before the schedule began in early November the consensus media message was the Gophers would be among the worst teams in major college basketball. Not so far, though. As of Monday morning Minnesota was one of 12 unbeaten Division I teams.

This remarkable start to the 2021-2022 season under new head coach Ben Johnson is totally unexpected. Johnson, the former Gopher and Minneapolis native, had no head coaching experience when he took over and assembled his staff. To critics the hire had the credibility of drawing names out of a hat, but results so far have been eye-opening.

Johnson’s assistants include Dave Thorson, his high school coach at DeLaSalle and a gifted instructor of defense. They inherited two returning players from the 2020-2021 roster. In the summer Isaiah Ihnen, one of the returnees, suffered a knee injury sidelining him for the season.

The new players, mostly transfers from mid-level college basketball programs, were hardly head-turners that sent ticket buyers scurrying to the box office. Some bios looked okay but there were doubts even the best of the newcomers could play with success in the Big Ten.

Ben Johnson

What’s evident now is Johnson recruited not just for basketball skill, but attitude. His players are all in on buying what the coaches tell them and playing for each other. Togetherness is one of the most over used words in team sports but these Gophers are unselfish and united.

“We need to be a team of all teams,” Johnson said earlier in the fall. “We need to lead the league in high-fives and butt slaps.”

The Gophers not only play together, they play within their skill sets and schemes. The collective basketball IQ is evident. After last weekend Minnesota was tied for seventh in the country with Duke for fewest turnovers at 68. The Gophers ranked No. 12 in fewest fouls with 92.

No one is saying the Gophers have defeated a who’s-who of college hoops opponents through seven games but they have wins against name-brand schools including 6-2 Mississippi State (in Starkville) and 6-3 Princeton (neutral court). The Gophers have won three games by a total of 10 points and another (Princeton) by seven in double overtime.

That shows resolve, something Johnson knew before the season he needed from his new team. “We’ve gotta be the toughest team, especially this year. We don’t have a lot of room for error. Our mental toughness, our physical toughness has got to be on point.”

The Gophers haven’t backed down from big moments in their seven games. Forward Jamison Battle, the team’s leading scorer at 17.9, has often put an end to another team’s scoring run by hitting a three-pointer. Point guard Peyton Willis, 17.4 points per game, has also been a steadying force and a much improved player from when he was at Minnesota a couple of years ago before transferring. Others have contributed in the clutch, too, like guard Luke Loewe who had a game-winning basket in Pittsburgh last week.

The arrival of 13 new players with different backgrounds, skill sets and personalities makes Johnson’s crew among the most transitional in the college basketball world. It’s evident Johnson and staff excel at player development, game preparation and in-game adjustments. Their start to the season deserves high-fives. No new Gophers coach has won his first seven games since Jim Dutcher in 1975.

Richard Pitino, Johnson’s predecessor, is 5-4 coaching at New Mexico with a 15 point loss to Towson. Pitino’s predecessor, Tubby Smith, is 4-4 at Highpoint with a 35 point loss to Northwestern. Dan Monson, who led Minnesota before Smith, is 2-6 at Long Beach State.

There are challenges ahead for the Gophers including better opposition game-after-game in the Big Ten. Many conference teams are talented and all do a thorough job of scouting opponents. Part of the task, too, for Minnesota will be staying healthy. The team lacks depth, mostly counting on a couple of subs to mix in with the starters.

Losing streaks are no doubt coming, but the feel-good start to the season should prompt some walk-up ticket sales for tomorrow night’s game against Michigan State at Williams Arena. The No. 19 ranked 7-2 Spartans are a perennial Big Ten bully.

The Spartans won’t fear the Gophers but they best respect them.

Friends Fret about Jerry Kill’s Health

Jerry Kill is a head coach again for the first time since 2015, a year that saw him resign during mid-season from the Golden Gophers because of health issues. Taking on the responsibility of leading the New Mexico State Aggies has coach’s many friends in Minnesota worried.

It’s not just that the Aggies are annual bottom feeders (one bowl game since 1960) and that winning in Las Cruces is a challenge for the ages. It’s the stark reality that leading a college football program 365 days per year is a mental and physical marathon for anyone, especially a beloved 60-year-old warrior known coast-to-coast for his battles with epilepsy, cancer and exhaustion.

Kill made an enduring number of friends while coaching at Minnesota from 2011-2015. Among those is Jim Carter, captain of the 1969 Gophers and a straight talking guy just like the new coach in Las Cruces.

Carter expressed concerns about his friend in an interview with Sports Headliners. “My hope is that it doesn’t kill him. …I think he knows that there is risk in it (coaching), and I think that’s what he feels he wants and needs to do. I am very sure that (wife) Rebecca supports him in it and I am sure his daughters (Krystal and Tasha) support him in it.”

Kill is on new meds for his epilepsy since he was at Minnesota. In an early November interview on WCCO Radio’s “The Huddle,” Kill wished he felt this well during his last couple of years at Minnesota.

“I’m in great shape,” Kill said. “I’m running every day. I’m doing all the things I should have been doing when I was at the University of Minnesota.”

Carter didn’t disclose all he knows about his friend’s health. However, his understanding is that Kill worked without an epilepsy incident the last two years at TCU where his assignments included interim head coach this fall.

It’s understandable if Kill doesn’t want to be communicative about every detail in his life. “I know him pretty well,” Carter said. “I consider him a good friend. I think he trusts me but when I ask him how he is doing, it’s usually, ‘Oh, I am doing great, or I am doing fine.’ And I am not sure that’s always been true.”

Jim Carter

Since leaving Minnesota Kill has tried administrative work at Southern Illinois and Kansas State. He has been an assistant coach at Rutgers where he suffered a well publicized seizure. A football lifer, he can’t step away from leading young men in the sport he loves.

“People say health is the most important thing. Well, some things get in your system and you just have to do them, and I think that’s the case with him,” Carter said.

The Aggies were 2-10 this past season, including 56 and 40 point losses to SEC teams. As fate would have it, the Aggies come to Minneapolis on September 1 for a game scheduled awhile ago. The Gophers will be three or four touchdown favorites going into that opening game of the season for them (Aggies open August 27 at home against Nevada). “He’s taking on a real project (with the Aggies), and I don’t think there’s any chance in hell of them being able to compete when they get up here to play Minnesota,” Carter said.

Yet the pressure will be on Minnesota. The Gophers will be criticized if they don’t dominate. The game decisions of Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck will be scrutinized by critics. Keep it close and the verdict by them will be Kill out coached Fleck. Blow out game? What else can you expect with the Aggies having such inferior personnel?

What’s for certain is the match up of both teams and coaches will draw interest not previously anticipated. The game could be played in front of a sellout crowd at Huntington Bank Stadium with many fans aware of Kill’s critical comments about Fleck in February of 2019. In a satellite radio interview Kill criticized Fleck’s ego and suggested the Minnesota coach is more about himself than the players.

Kill built a winner at Minnesota, just as he had done in previous coaching stops including Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois. Carter predicts (health allowing) Kill will succeed in Las Cruces, making the Aggies a competitive team fans will be proud to support.

It appears Kill may take on the New Mexico State project without any of the familiar staff from when he was at Minnesota including defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who is now out of coaching. Nate Dreiling, a former Southeast Missouri inside linebackers coach, will be Kill’s defensive coordinator.

“It surprises me, frankly, because I loved that (Gopher) staff,” Carter said. “I loved the guys. But it doesn’t sound like any of them are going (to Las Cruces).’’

Minnesota was not a competitive program when Kill took over, with the Gophers finishing 3-9 in 2010. It was a rugged beginning including the second game of the Kill era in 2011 when he collapsed on the sidelines from a seizure during an unexpected home loss to (yes) New Mexico State.

But Kill and his staff improved the talent on the roster and were accomplished at player development. By 2015, coming off the program’s first New Year’s Day bowl game since 1962, the Gophers were drawing the largest crowds in TCF Bank Stadium history.

You can bet a lot of the fandom from 2015 will be back on campus September 1, 2022.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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