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Men’s basketball: Gophers juggling NIT and transfer portal while ‘guessing’ on next year’s roster

Gophers men’s basketball coach Ben Johnson had enough on his plate in preparing for Sunday’s National Invitational Tournament game at Indiana State.

In the meantime, Johnson has been juggling possible roster additions via the NCAA transfer portal, which swung open Monday.

“Every minute that we are not focused on Indiana State, we are focused on the portal,” Johnson said Friday. “We spent all morning combining both, like we did (Thursday), and the (boys basketball) state tournament is going on here (at Williams Arena), so we are trying to do that. We are trying to see who is in the portal, the whole thing.”

It’s unclear which current Gophers players might leave after the postseason, including the chance that power forward Dawson Garcia and shooting guard Cam Christie pursue NBA prospects.

Johnson credited his coaching and support staff for being on top of both objectives this week.

“It’s just what you got to do,” Johnson said. “We will put together the necessary time needed to do both.”

Johnson chatted with media members on Friday afternoon, just before full attention turned to the Sycamores in the U’s practice. Minnesota (19-14) plays No. 1 seed Indiana State in the second round of the NIT at 1 p.m. Sunday at Hulman Center in Terre Haute, Ind.

Indiana State (29-6) won the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title, but missed out on the NCAA tournament when Drake won the conference tournament.

The Sycamores are eighth in the nation in points per game, averaging 84.9, and they beat Southern Methodist 101-92 in the first round of the NIT on Wednesday. The Sycamores’ primary rotation of six players all shoot 35 percent or better from 3-point range.

Indiana State has a “crazy combination of talent and skill that you just don’t see,” Johnson said. “… All six guys can dribble, pass and shoot.”

With the Gophers’ season continuing with a win over Butler in the first round of the NIT on Tuesday, Johnson currently lives in a foggy gray area.

“The hardest part about it is the longer you play, the longer you don’t know what your roster is going to look like, so you (looking) are in the portal, but you are kind of in the portal guessing to a certain extent, unless you know you have open scholarships already,” Johnson said.

Johnson has commiserated with other coaches in similar plights while navigating the postseason.

“(Transferring players) are going in and you have to monitor it and have to look at certain positions and certain guys,” Johnson said. “You have no idea really what you need to attack because your roster is still intact because you are still playing. There is no book that tells you how to do that. You are out there, trying to do the best you can, and at the same time, you are still trying to win games and continue your season.”

Johnson said there was “zero consideration” of passing on the NIT to focus on the roster for next season. Indiana and six other major programs opted not to play in the NIT so they could put single-minded focus on their futures.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” Johnson said. “The longer you play, the greater it is for your program and what you are trying to do. At the same time, the longer you play, you do feel like you are up against it just because there is going to be a lot of uncertainty. Guys are going to make decisions sooner than later in some instances in the portal, and you have to deal with that as it comes.”

Gophers point guard Elijah Hawkins told the Star Tribune last week that he will be returning next season. Key substitute forward Parker Fox appears to be leaning toward not using his seventh year of eligibility next season.

Other than those two players, the Gophers’ roster is more to-be-determined until their season comes to an end.

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