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Big Ten exit leaves Gophers dreaming about better things for next season

Even after knocking the Gophers from the Big Ten men's basketball tournament Thursday, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo claimed his counterpart, Ben Johnson, had the talent to win the Big Ten next season.

"They could be the No. 1 team in the league next year," Izzo said after the 77-67 Spartans' win.

That's a bold prediction for the 18-14 Gophers, who finished ninth in the standings this season, but it's not farfetched to think they could become a Big Ten contender — if everyone comes back.

"I think it's important to keep the group together, so we can keep building on it," sophomore Pharrel Payne said. "Imagine what we could do if we keep the group together for next year."

In a deflated locker room, with the team pointed toward a possible NIT bid Sunday night, players expressed enthusiasm over what they could accomplish next season by staying together. Making the 2025 NCAA tournament seems attainable, along with other goals.

"If feel like if you keep us together, we're a top four team in the league," sophomore Braeden Carrington said. "And we could possibly break into the top 25. We have a lot of potential here."

Leading scorer Dawson Garcia said the second round exit in the Big Ten tournament in front of the home crowd left a sour taste for him. Not enough to decide yet on coming back, though.

"I don't know," Garcia said Thursday. "You know I love this program. I love my coaches, teammates, and everything. It's going to be a tough decision. But I'm going to make it quick because I want to be fully committed to whatever I'm doing."

A week ago, point guard Elijah Hawkins seemed just as uncertain as Garcia about what his decision might be after the season, but he said Thursday he's "definitely" returning to the team.

"We'll have a lot of experience playing in the [Big Ten] tournament and in big games," said Hawkins, who transferred from Howard. "I feel like we can be a lot better."

Mike Mitchell Jr., a fellow transfer, said it hurt to think about what could've been if the Gophers avoided a late slide with five losses in the last six games. They still won more league games than the two past years combined 9-6.

"We did a lot of special things that everybody thought we wouldn't do," Mitchell said. "I hope we can keep going and play in the NIT."

Hawkins, Mitchell and Cam Christie gave the Gophers one of their strongest starting backcourts in years. Braeden Carrington was a solid perimeter defender off the bench. The Gophers add four-star Cherry (Minn.) guard Isaac Asuma next season.

"I think having that group of guards back would mean a lot," Payne said. "We play well together. We support each other. We complement each other."

Getting NBA draft feedback is likely something Gophers players will do. Some of them are already familiar with the process. Garcia declared for the NBA draft after his freshman year at Marquette.

Christie, who was an All-Big Ten freshman, has experience with the NBA draft when his older brother, Max, was picked in the second round by the Los Angeles Lakers after his freshman year in 2021.

Christie, who ranks second on the Gophers in scoring, said playing for the Gophers again was "for sure" an option, but he hasn't been ready to announce anything on his future.

"I haven't put too much thought into that," Christie said. "Obviously, I was focused on the season. But now that we've gotten to this point, I'll get with my family. We'll talk about that."

Johnson only played one senior in his main rotation with sixth-year forward Parker Fox, who still has another year of eligibility. Fox seems to be leaning toward moving on, but he hasn't decided, either.

It's hard for some of the Gophers to think about the potential of the 2024-25 team before this year is officially over.

"Hopefully, we have more basketball ahead of us," Johnson said. "But if not, I know we're going to attack this spring and summer and really be ready next year."