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Gophers lose three players to NCAA transfer portal; Pharrel Payne exit stings most

Gophers men’s basketball coach Ben Johnson wanted the 10-win improvement in this year’s team to be a stepping stone for more success next season.

But that projected upward trajectory suffered a big setback Thursday when sophomore center Pharrel Payne entered the NCAA transfer portal, a source confirmed to the Pioneer Press. Going into his junior season, Payne was a maturing building block for the future after he averaged 10.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 31 games last season.

The 6-foot-9 post from Park of Cottage Grove is the most damaging defection among four total players to exit the U this week, including backup guard Braeden Carrington and reserve forward Isaiah Ihnen, both of whom left later Thursday. Forward Josh Ola-Joseph, who played little at the end of the season, entered the portal on Wednesday.

Johnson now has four vacant scholarships for next year’s roster and will have to head back into the portal this spring to remake the team for next season. In his first two offseasons, Johnson had a turnover of eight players after the 2021-22 season and then five players after 2022-23.

Johnson knew players had personal decisions to make once the season ended in a loss to Indiana State in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament on Sunday, but he had emphasized what the U could be next season in a possible run to the NCAA tournament.

He was “hoping” the bulk of the roster would remain together for next year. “I think this is a really good group,” Johnson said March 5. “I think it’s a fun group. I think it’s a group, again, still with an offseason can get better and be more consistent and has a chance to really be improved next year.”

Johnson said Sunday he would have meetings this week with all players to discuss the future.

The increasing role of name, image and likeness (NIL) opportunities at the U and elsewhere serve as a growing factor in players’ decisions and is believed to be a factor in Payne leaving the U. The U’s NIL fund via Dinkytown Athletes is better than a year ago, but it is not considered to be a trendsetter in the industry.

The still-uncertain futures of forward Dawson Garcia and guard Cam Christie was the primary concern going into the offseason, with the storyline being: Could the U’s two leading scorers jet off to the NBA?

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Payne was not at the top of that list. He made progress from his freshman year, becoming more comfortable and assertive on the court and moving into the starting lineup at midseason. His statistical averages jumped compared to last season.

The loss of Payne and Carrington on top of Ola-Joseph means all four primary pieces of the Gophers’ 2022 recruiting class are gone. And those three Minnesotans were the foundation of Johnson’s first major class at his alma mater.

The fourth piece, guard Jaden Henley, transferred to DePaul after his freshman season a year ago. The fifth and final piece of that class is Kadyn Betts; he reclassified to the ’22 class, and remains at the U but barely played last season.

Carrington, from Brooklyn Park, averaged 4.6 points and 3.2 rebounds across 21 minutes per game this past season. He played in 29 games, taking a short break midseason to focus on his mental health.

Ihnen, who missed the two previous seasons with anterior cruciate ligament injuries, was the last holdover player from former coach Richard Pitino’s era. He averaged 3.4 points, 1.9 rebounds and 11.5 minutes across 28 games, but saw his time on the court shrink as Big Ten play continued into the spring.

The Gophers are welcoming North Dakota State transfer big man Andrew Morgan for a visit this week. One idea was Morgan, of Waseca, Minn., would back up Payne next season, but now the U will have to go into the portal for multiple post players for the 2024-25 season.

Gophers backup center Jack Wilson exhausts his eligibility, and sixth man forward Parker Fox of Mahtomedi was not expected back for a seventh season.

The U will add 6-foot-9 forward Grayson Grove of Alexandria as an incoming freshman for next season, but much more work will be needed for the U to take the jump the Gophers thought they could make with Payne next season.

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