Johnson has Gophers winning with local talent, just like Coyle hoped

Gophers athletics director Mark Coyle realized how strong Ben Johnson's Minnesota ties were three years ago — while interviewing others for the job.

"It was amazing how many of the other candidates we talked to that said their first phone call would be to Ben Johnson to get him on the staff," Coyle said this week.

Coyle eventually hired a young first-time head coach who, by his own measure at the time, wasn't seriously considered to lead other programs. Everyone knew he was a "Minnesota dude," as Johnson called himself on his first day on the job in 2021.

Johnson is from Minneapolis, played for the Gophers and coached as a U assistant. Coyle asked him to do a better job recruiting Minnesota than his predecessors — and Johnson has delivered so far.

"Timing is everything," Coyle said. "The job opened up. He had an opportunity. And I think he's making the most of that opportunity."

Entering Friday's game at Indiana, the Gophers (12-3, 3-1 Big Ten) are riding a seven-game win streak and have eight in-state players on their roster. Only top-ranked Purdue has more in-state players (11 from Indiana) among Big Ten teams. The Hoosiers have five.

After finishing last in the Big Ten in his first two years with a combined 6-33 record, Johnson is now showing you can win with a Minnesota-laden team.

Last season, the Gophers had seven scholarship players from Minnesota, the most since 2007-08. Six Minnesotans are on scholarship this year, including five players in the U's main rotation. They are leading scorer Dawson Garcia; a talented sophomore trio of Pharrel Payne, Braeden Carrington and Joshua Ola-Joseph; and key reserve Parker Fox.

"Our league traditionally — when you have good in-state talent, it helps," Johnson said. "Our program is always going to recruit the state hard and figure out the best fit for us."

Getting top local talent

Garcia, a 6-11 Prior Lake product, started his career at Marquette and North Carolina, but his passion for representing the state grew after returning home, and he's now in his second year with the Gophers.

"We're trying to get it back to where it needs to be," Garcia said, noting the home crowd's energy in Sunday's 65-62 victory over Maryland at Williams Arena.

"That's a big-time feeling and no better feeling than winning and having that fan base behind us."

Gophers fans were disappointed when former coach Richard Pitino didn't land McDonald's All-Americans Jalen Suggs and Garcia four years ago.

Pitino didn't prioritize local recruiting. He signed no players from Minnesota in his 2017, '19 and '20 high school classes. But with Johnson's help, Pitino did land local stars such as Amir Coffey and Daniel Oturu in 2016 and '18. And both have played in the NBA.

Johnson hasn't landed Minnesota's No. 1-ranked high school player yet as Gophers coach, including Chet Holmgren going to Gonzaga in 2021. Wayzata's Jackson McAndrew, the state's top senior this season, signed with Creighton. Rival Wisconsin, now first place in the Big Ten standings, still has a talent pipeline across the border. But the ones who got away aren't from a lack of effort on the Gophers' part.

"You walk into a gym and you'll be sitting next to Ben Johnson," Coyle said. "He's visible. He's always recruiting somebody."

Johnson and his staff have succeeded in evaluating in-state players who fit the Gophers and flew under the radar, including the 2022 recruiting class of Ola-Joseph, Payne and Carrington.

Johnson signed two Minnesotans in his 2024 recruiting class with Isaac Asuma and Grayson Grove. Asuma was recently ranked one of the top 10 point guards nationally by 247sports.

"Johnson has great relationships here," Coyle said. "[Assistant] Dave Thorson has done an unbelievable job in the state of Minnesota with his connections because of his success at DeLaSalle."

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The Gophers' sophomore class has been the best example of how the program develops talent. All three players are contributing to a winning team.

Brooklyn Park's Ola-Joseph has started 39 games in a row and is averaging a career-best 10.7 points. The 6-7 walking highlight reel has scored in double figures in seven consecutive games. Ola-Joseph's improvement as a rebounder could help the U contend in the Big Ten.

After a leave of absence to focus on his mental health last month, former Park Center standout Carrington returned to his role as a lockdown defender. He also had eight points, five rebounds and two steals in 29 minutes against Maryland.

Ola-Joseph and Carrington have more starting experience so far in their Gophers careers, but Cottage Grove's Payne can be a game-changing talent in the post. He has played his most consistent ball recently, with 12 points, eight rebounds and four blocks off the bench in last week's 73-71 victory at Michigan.

In addition to Payne, Mahtomedi's Fox provides depth in the frontcourt that the Gophers were missing last season. Fox's leadership and energy off the bench have made an impact after he sat out the past two seasons because of knee injuries.

The Gophers are stacked with in-state players, but they have added other key pieces, including their starting backcourt of transfers Elijah Hawkins (Washington, D.C.) and Mike Mitchell Jr. (California) and freshman Cam Christie (Illinois).

Figuring out how to build a program, with both in-state and national talent, is a sign of Johnson's growth. The rookie coach Coyle hired primarily to recruit Minnesota guys is doing more than that now — and winning, too.

"It's a much different program," Coyle said. "That's a credit to Ben, Coach Thorson and [assistants Marcus Jenkins and Jason Kemp]. Those guys work so hard. They've done it the right way."

Minnesota natives on Gophers roster

Joshua Ola-Joseph, sophomore forward, Brooklyn Park

Dawson Garcia, junior forward, Savage

Braeden Carrington, sophomore guard, Brooklyn Park

Jackson Purcell, sophomore guard, Apple Valley*

Erick Reader, freshman forward, Bloomington**

Pharrel Payne, sophomore forward, Cottage Grove

Parker Fox, senior forward, Mahtomedi

Will Ramberg, senior forward, Grand Marais**

** - Walk-on

* - Scholarship walk-on