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Ben Johnson’s Gophers keep shrinking the gap

After avoiding an upset Thursday at home, Purdue coach Matt Painter was certain Ben Johnson's Gophers basketball program is "going in the right direction."

Once considered the doormat of the Big Ten, the Gophers are being taken seriously now every game. That wasn't the case last season when the Boilermakers were one of many teams to stomp on them.

"He's just made a lot of right decisions in developing his team," Painter said of Johnson, after the Gophers fell 84-76 in West Lafayette, Ind. "That's what you want to see. That light at the end of the tunnel. You want that light to be hope."

Major progress doesn't necessarily have to be measured with an NCAA tournament appearance. Just being in the majority of games this year has been a huge step.

The Gophers (15-9, 6-7 Big Ten) host Rutgers on Sunday at Williams Arena, ranked eighth in the Big Ten in scoring margin (minus-1.5) in league games. That might not seem overly impressive, but it's light years from how utterly non-competitive Minnesota's team was last year in one of the toughest conferences in the country.

When Johnson talks about "going through the suck," he's not just referring to winning two Big Ten games last season. The Gophers were dead last by far with an abysmal minus-12.3 scoring margin in conference play, the Big Ten's worst since Rutgers' 1-17 team went minus-12.7 in league margin in 2015-16.

Last year, the Gophers lost by 19 points at Mackey Arena, but they had an eight-point halftime lead Thursday against the No. 2-ranked Boilermakers, who are undefeated at home this season.

"That's a hard place to play," Johnson said. "For our guys to go in there and battle and compete you had to take positives from that. Obviously, it's about winning the game, so now it's about what next step do we need to take?"

Big Ten tested

This year's scoring margin overall for the Gophers (plus-6.8 points) ranks fourth in the Big Ten behind Purdue, Illinois and Michigan State. But that's inflated from blowing out opponents at home during a soft nonconference schedule. They needed to prove they could win in the Big Ten.

The Gophers really started opening eyes among Big Ten coaches like Painter when they had a three-game conference win streak earlier this month. It could've been four in a row if they had finished off the blowout at Iowa, after leading by 20 points in the second half last Sunday.

"We're growing with each and every game," Johnson said. "I think our mentality took a step from the Iowa game, which is what I needed to see."

Johnson had more talent last season than he had his first year, with Dawson Garcia, Jamison Battle (now at Ohio State), transfer point guard Ta'Lon Cooper (now at South Carolina) and the young core. But injuries, inexperience and inconsistency led to the U losing 12 Big Ten games by more than 10 points, including back-to-back 30-point losses for the first time in program history.

A year later, the Gophers are better offensively and much improved on defense with their best KenPom.com rating since the 2020-21 season. They have Garcia and most of the young core back with Pharrel Payne, Braeden Carrington and Joshua Ola-Joseph. They have more frontcourt depth with Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen healthy. They added impact transfer guards with Elijah Hawkins and Mike Mitchell Jr. They have benefited from Cam Christie having a Big Ten Freshman of the Year-type season.

"I'm biased but I don't know if there's a kid who has had a better freshman year in this league or across the country with as much as we're playing him," Johnson said about Christie.

No blowout losses

Putting together depth, talent and experience has helped the Gophers have only one Big Ten loss by more than 10 points in 13 games. That was their 74-62 defeat at Indiana on Jan. 12. Four of Minnesota's seven conference losses are by single digits, including 61-59 against No. 13 Wisconsin Jan. 23 at home.

You can bet the Gophers would love to play the Badgers again, especially with how well Minnesota has been shooting the ball for stretches lately. For the first time all season, the Gophers led at halftime in the last two games at Iowa and Purdue.

The Gophers started 11-for-15 from three-point range against the Hawkeyes before a late collapse with Garcia hurt. They shot 9-for-16 from three in the first half with Garcia back Thursday against the Boilermakers. They could get back on track in the next two home games vs. Rutgers and Ohio State (next Thursday) if those shooting numbers continue.

"I think we're getting better by each game," said Mitchell, who is shooting 9-for-16 from three in the past two games. "It showed [Thursday] that we played the No. 2 team in the country down to the wire. We're confident we can play with anybody."

Finishing games is what the Gophers are focused on now that they can compete.

"I think the mindset is right with everybody," Garcia said. "It's just taking that extra step, that extra inch, maybe making that extra play. We have to lock in on practice and become detail oriented. We don't have many games left until the Big Ten tournament."