Advertisement

Five Gophers going, but Johnson hopeful four starters will be back

Gophers men's basketball coach Ben Johnson is proud of what his team accomplished this season, but he's also looking forward to being even better — if he can still return a core group next year.

Johnson said Monday that as of now he potentially could have four starters back with leading scorer and All-Big Ten forward Dawson Garcia, Elijah Hawkins, Mike Mitchell Jr., and Cam Christie. The only starter currently lost is Pharrel Payne, among five Gophers who entered the transfer portal last week after the season ended.

"Right now, we're in a pretty good spot," Johnson said in a phone interview. "If you look across the league at the number of teams that could potentially return four guys who started a significant amount of games. We're pretty fortunate."

Late in the season, Christie and Garcia said they had not made a decision on coming back, and both could potentially consider taking part in the NBA draft process.

They've already been part of a turnaround. The Gophers had a 10-win improvement from the previous year to finish 19-15 and ninth in the Big Ten. They also won a game in the NIT.

"There's a ton to be proud of getting to postseason play," Johnson said. "I think everybody predicted us not to do much of anything."

After Payne, Joshua Ola-Joseph, Braeden Carrington, Isaiah Ihnen and Kris Keinys decided to continue their careers elsewhere, Johnson said he tried not to take that personally. He understands it's part of the process of roster management each year. He said players are "afforded to make decisions that are best for them."

"I just think there are so many factors that people don't understand go into it," Johnson said. "It's a challenging part of it. But it is what it is. We try to focus on the guys who are here and try to keep as many of those guys as we possibly can."

There's a big opportunity to build on Year 3′s success with the talent still left and with the portal to bolster the Gophers program. Dinkytown Athletes, the Gophers' collective, is working hard to put the U in the best position for name, image and likeness (NIL) deals that it has ever been, Johnson said.

"NIL is recruiting, point blank," Johnson said. "It gives our program the opportunity to potentially do some things maybe we haven't been able to do historically and in the past. If we're able to pour into our collective as a community, it does give us an opportunity to really have an impactful team."

Garcia, Hawkins and Mitchell are juniors. Christie was an All-Big Ten freshman. Johnson said the Gophers are working on getting senior Parker Fox to return for a seventh season. Redshirt freshman Kadyn Betts is expected back. There also will be two incoming high school recruits with Isaac Asuma and Grayson Grove.

"We have an exciting opportunity to bring back a pretty good core of guys," Johnson said. "We're bringing in two freshmen who I really like. And with any additions we have from the portal, I think it's a great opportunity for us to improve."

North Dakota State big man Andrew Morgan visited the Gophers last week. There have been several other players targeted by Johnson and his staff since the NIT second-round loss at Indiana State on March 24.

"The fun part of it when we go into the portal is, we try to be creative and find pieces to add to what you already have," Johnson added. "I told our team there's no rule to say we can't be better next year than we were this year. Now it's an opportunity to try to do that."