Gophers men’s basketball coach Ben Johnson opens up about transfer portal

Gophers men’s basketball coach Ben Johnson isn’t sitting in his office feeling sorry for himself.

There’s no time for that.

The transfer portal is open and his program is suddenly down a handful of players.

“You’ve got to keep pushing,” Johnson said. “It’s my job to put the most competitive team on the floor.”

That might be easier said than done considering the recent losses.

A few days after Minnesota bowed out of the second round of the NIT with a loss at Indiana State, starting center Pharrel Payne surprisingly entered the transfer portal, a gut punch to the program as he was developing into an anchor down low. His departure headlined a group of departing players last week that also included four reserves — forward Joshua Ola-Joseph, guard Braeden Carrington, forward Isaiah Ihnen and forward Kris Keinys.

“It is what it is,” Johnson said. “We try to focus on the guys that are here and keeping as many of them as we possibly can.”

The biggest concern in Dinkytown is whether somebody like star big man Dawson Garcia or star freshman Cam Christie will follow suit. As of now, Johnson said he’s operating under the assumption that Garcia and Christie will return, as will starting point guard Elijah Hawkins and combo guard Mike Mitchell Jr.

“I think right now we’re in a pretty good spot,” the coach said. “We have an exciting opportunity to return a pretty good core.”

Asked if he was anticipating anybody else leaving the program at this point, Johnson emphasized that the only time he’ll know for sure is when the transfer portal is closed.

“There’s not a coach in the country that can say, ‘Hey, I’m 100 percent confident that this is going to be my roster,’ ” Johnson said. “That’s not even a negative thing. It’s the reality of the day and age that we’re in. We deal with it as it comes.”

There’s also the possibility that Garcia and/or Christie could declare for the 2024 NBA Draft. As much as both players would likely benefit from returning to the college ranks, it might be much to pass up the chance to fulfill a childhood dream. That’s a decision Garcia and Christie will have to make in the next few weeks.

“They’re going to be in position to have good things happen to them individually,” Johnson said. “Whenever the time is right for them, the time is right for them.”

In the meantime, the Gophers plan to be extremely active in the transfer portal themselves, equipped with some additional scholarships because of the recent turnover. Asked how the concept of name, image, and likeness will play a role in that process, Johnson was up front about its importance.

“NIL is recruiting now,” he said. “We all need to understand that. NIL is recruiting now. Period.”

Though the U’s official collective, Dinkytown Athletes, has much deeper pockets than it used to, and the funds are steadily pouring in, the Gophers still can’t compete with some of the top programs. Not that Johnson is using that as an excuse as he dives into the transfer portal.

“We’re trying to be creative and find pieces that add to what we already have,” he said. “I told our team, ‘There’s no rule that says we can’t be better next year.’ ”

Some of that will hinge on whether the Gophers are able to take advantage of the transfer portal.

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