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Garcia staying with Gophers; Johnson hopes fans appreciate choice

Gophers men's basketball coach Ben Johnson was sitting in his office early Thursday when he got a text message saying his leading scorer and rebounder Dawson Garcia was in the building.

Johnson didn't know what to expect. Was it good news?

Turns out it was the best news the Gophers could've hoped for, with the 6-11 All-Big Ten junior forward telling his coach he was returning for his senior season.

"I called him immediately and got fired up," Johnson said. "I ran downstairs where he was on the court and gave him a big hug. I just told him how excited I was that he's back and we're not going to let him down."

Garcia has been the face of the Gophers since transferring in two years ago — and the former Prior Lake star has some unfinished business playing for his home state Big Ten program.

"I take extreme pride and gratitude in wearing 'Minnesota' across my chest," Garcia said in a statement. "I couldn't pass up the opportunity to run it back one last time and represent this state. Let's make it a special year Gopher nation!"

Johnson made a 10-win improvement from 9-22 to 19-15 in his third season with the program. The ninth-place finish in the Big Ten was the best for the Gophers since 2018-19.

Johnson said earlier this week he was hoping the core of his Gophers team would return to make a push at an even better finish next season, but the biggest piece was definitely the former McDonald's All-America from Savage.

The Gophers are adding two high school recruits and still searching the transfer portal, but they're expecting to have starting guards Elijah Hawkins and Mike Mitchell Jr. back for next season. All-Big Ten freshman guard Cam Christie is considering a return, but might test the NBA draft process.

Starting sophomore center Pharrel Payne was among five Gophers players to enter the portal since the season ended late last month. But Johnson said he was meeting Thursday with senior forward Parker Fox on possibly being back to help Garcia with frontcourt depth, along with redshirt freshman Kadyn Betts.

More lucrative name, image and likeness opportunities appeared to be a factor in Payne's decision and others to enter the portal. The Gophers' NIL collective, Dinkytown Athletes, has been working sleepless nights to retain players. But Johnson said Garcia likely turned down bigger NIL offers to stay home.

"Everybody talks about what's maybe broken with college basketball," Johnson said. "Dawson's all about what's right about college basketball ... He left a lot of money on the table. That's a credit to him. There are things he weighed, and his family weighed. I hope our fans really can appreciate that in this day and age."

After the Gophers suffered a loss against Michigan State at Target Center in the Big Ten tournament last month, Garcia said he hadn't made a decision yet about returning but loved the program and his team.

"I definitely think we're continuing to go in the right direction," Garcia said after the game. "We've got guys in the locker room, a whole coaching staff, a whole university that's behind us that's willing and committed."

Garcia led the team in scoring (17.6) and rebounding (6.7) for the second straight year. He had 11 games with 20-plus points, including three 30-point performances.

The Gophers are among 13 Big Ten teams to lose players to the portal as of Thursday, including Nebraska and Rutgers with six players. Purdue, which is in the Final Four, is the only Big Ten team with no players in the portal.

With Purdue's Zach Edey, Illinois' Terrence Shannon Jr., Northwestern's Boo Buie and others graduating, though, Garcia right now would be the top scorer returning in the Big Ten.

The Gophers' chances of moving up in the league's pecking order are now significantly better.

"I think it's awesome not only for him but this program to have a guy who is potentially preseason All-American and first-team All-Big Ten," Johnson said. "We haven't had that in a while. It's a good thing for everybody involved."