Gophers men channeling an ‘Ultimate Warrior’ mentality this season

Three things to watch — Gophers vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff

Warrior mentality

Gophers coach Ben Johnson was a big wrestling fan growing up — and his favorite wrestler was the Ultimate Warrior. That helped him come up with an idea to motivate his players.

The Gophers honor their player of the game with a WWE-style replica championship belt.

Following the opening win vs. Bethune-Cookman earlier this month, Dawson Garcia posed with his teammates for a picture in the locker room after posting an impressive stat line with 23 points, 14 rebounds, and six assists. But it wasn't necessarily those numbers that earned him the shiny hardware.

The social media post of the picture said: "Big warrior," which came from Johnson, an Ultimate Warrior fan.

"It's not necessarily the guy who had the leading stat line," Johnson said. "It's who our staff feels like for that game kind of embodied being a warrior. Whatever that meant."

The following week after the victory against Texas San Antonio, Isaiah Ihnen had the wrestling belt draped over his shoulder when he recorded a career-high 20 points on 7-for-7 shooting, including 5-for-5 from three-point range.

And most recently coming back from last week's loss to Missouri, Pharrel Payne carried the belt after leading the team with four blocks in a bounce back win vs. South Carolina Upstate. Payne ranks second in the Big Ten with 2.7 blocks per game.

"I just think it's good," Johnson said. "I want everybody to feel like winning, it takes everybody. It takes everybody doing the little stuff at a high level."

Can't wait for Washington State transfer Jack Wilson to win the belt this year. He's actually bigger than WWE's the Undertaker at 6-11 and nearly 300 pounds.

The wrestling idea carried over from Johnson establishing "winners week" in September. It was a grueling stretch of early morning workouts in September. Garcia, who could be headed for a breakout junior year, credited that for helping him get in better shape this season.

Scoring in backcourt

The Gophers have three wins in four games this season, but their starting backcourt has been outscored in each outing. It was 28-23 vs. Bethune-Cookman, 30-9 vs. Texas San Antonio, 25-14 vs. Missouri and 27-14 vs. South Carolina Upstate.

Elijah Hawkins (8.8 points per game) has been more of a pass-first point guard. He initiates the U's new, up-tempo offense and leads the Gophers and ranks third in the Big Ten with 5.0 assists per game. Braeden Carrington's 7.0 points per game is lowest among the starters, but he ranks second on the team with 5.8 rebounds and is the team's best perimeter defender. Carrington also liked playing Pine Bluff last season, scoring a career-best 20 points on 5-for-9 shooting, including 4-for-7 from three-point range and 6-for-6 on free throws.

But the Gophers defense will be key Tuesday night against the Pine Bluff backcourt of Kylen Milton, Rashad Williams and Joe French, who combined to average 60 points per game. Milton ranks fifth in Division I in scoring with 23.8 points per game on 66% shooting from the field and 58% from three-point range. Milton and French had 34 and 30 points in a loss to Missouri this season, respectively. Williams put up 28 points in a win vs. Central Arkansas. The Lions won't be playing much defense (rank second-to-worst in D-I in defensive efficiency), but they'll be ready to run and gun against the Gophers at the Barn. Can Ben Johnson's guards match that offensively?

The answer could be off the bench. Mike Mitchell Jr. had all nine of his points on 3-for-7 shooting from three-point range in the second half vs. USC Upstate. Cam Christie might also be in line for another big game. Since his 18-point freshman debut Nov. 10 vs. UTSA, Christie has just seven points combined on 2-for-12 shooting in the last two games.

Free throw fancy

The Gophers are a much different team this season at the foul line. Night and day.

Last season, the Gophers were dead last in Division I in free throw percentage (61.9%), but they've shown major improvement. They ranked first in the Big Ten and 24th nationally (79%) in free throw percentage through four games. They also rank first in the conference and 10th nationally in free throws made (20.8) per game entering Tuesday.

Hawkins is shooting 16-for-16 from the foul line this season, ranking first in the Big Ten.

In the opening win vs. Bethune-Cookman, the Gophers shot 27-for-35. The 27 free throws made were the most in a game for the Gophers since they made 34 free throws during the 2020-21 season against Saint Louis and UMKC, respectively.

Garcia, who shots 90.6% on free throws this season, went 14-for-16 from the foul line against Bethune-Cookman, the most free throws by a Gophers player since Marcus Carr went 14-for-19 vs. Saint Louis on Dec. 12, 2020.


Time: 8 p.m. CT, Tuesday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Gophers 16.5-point favorite. Series: The Gophers won the previous meeting with Pine Bluff 72-56 at the Barn on Dec. 14, 2022. TV: Big Ten Network. Online/Live video: BTN plus. Radio: 100.3 FM.



Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Elijah Hawkins 5-11 Jr. 8.8

G – Braeden Carrington 6-4 So. 7.0

F – Joshua Ola-Joseph 6-7 So. 9.3

F – Isaiah Ihnen 6-9 Jr. 10.3

F – Dawson Garcia 6-11 Jr. 18.8

Key reserves – Cam Christie, G, 6-6, Fr., 8.3 ppg; Parker Fox, F, 6-8, Sr., 4.5 ppg; Mike Mitchell Jr., G, 6-2, Jr. 8.5 ppg; Pharrel Payne, F, 6-9, So., 7.3 ppg.

Coach: Ben Johnson 25-40 record (3rd season)

Notable: The Gophers are 11-0 vs. the Southwestern Athletic Conference in all-time games, including the last meeting in an 80-60 win vs. Bethune-Cookman in the season opener this year.


Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Rashad Williams 6-2 Sr. 18.8

G – Kylen Milton 6-4 Jr. 23.8

G – Lonnell Martin Jr. 6-4 Sr. 10.6

G – Joe French 6-5 Sr. 17.2

F – Robert Lewis 6-9 So. 4.4

Key reserves – Jyre McCloud, G, 6-5, Jr., 9.3 ppg; Kaine McColley, G, 6-5, Sr., 5.6 ppg; Trejon Ware, G, 5-9, Jr., 2.6 ppg. Ismael Plet, F, 6-8, Jr., 3.0 ppg.

Coach: Solomon Bozeman 20-47 (3rd season)

Notable: At 35, Solomon Bozeman is one of the youngest coaches in Division I men's college basketball. The same year he finished playing professionally overseas in Ukraine, Bozeman was hired as a 27-year-old assistant at Abilene Christian in 2014. He was also an assistant at Little Rock and Oral Roberts before becoming a head coach in 2021.

Fuller's score prediction (3-1): Gophers 90, Arkansas-Pine Bluff 75.