You can't fall down when you're already on the floor, and it's time for the Gophers men's basketball program to rise in Ben Johnson's third year in charge.
The first two seasons have been unkind, with roster upheaval and transfer portal and recruiting losses, and the unforgiving Big Ten can knock down a program in a hurry. But there has been too much bad basketball to accept those excuses.
Johnson is as affable as a human can be and many want him to succeed, but he's 22-39 in his first two seasons. Wins would be the tangible proof that Gophers men's hoops is headed in the right direction. It's Year 3, and Johnson doesn't have many of those.
One sign that this season could be different could come Thursday when Missouri visits Williams Arena. After facing cupcakes in their first two games, the Gophers can judge themselves against an SEC program that has had instant success under second-year head coach Dennis Gates.
Gates? Yes, that name should sound familiar. Gates was the head coach at Cleveland State when the Gophers moved on from Richard Pitino following the 2020-21 season. The Chicago-born Gates was a popular candidate and on the Gophers' radar at the time, but the school decided on a homecoming with Johnson. Gates returned to Cleveland State for one more season, leading the Vikings to a 20-11 record, and then replaced Cuonzo Martin. Instantly, the Tigers and Gophers became two programs passing in the night.
Gates had just three returning players but knocked it out of the park with the transfer portal. In his first season leading the Tigers, Gates directed them to a 25-10 record and a victory over Utah State in the NCAA tournament — the tournament the Gophers have not seen since 2019. Johnson had ten newcomers in his first season, but they didn't have the impact that Gates' first team had, going 13-17.
Both Johnson and Gates are relatively young coaches looking to become established. One is off to a better start than the other.
"He has some good friends that are my good friends," Gates said of Johnson. "I've seen him grow and he's worked for some tremendous coaches. Minnesota is lucky to have a guy like that, that wanted to be there.
"He has a tremendous reach when it comes down to recruiting. He had a tremendous class, and you cannot eliminate what happened when he had a last-second de-commitment [Dennis Evans]. And that's not on him, it's on the different parameters around kids.
"But he's growing as a coach, no different than me."
Gates went on to say that he believes that Johnson will be a head coach for "20-plus years." If Johnson wants those 20 years to be in maroon and gold, it's time to start stacking some successful seasons.
Johnson brings into Year 3 a little more experience, a reworked backcourt and a deeper bench than his first two seasons. Dawson Garcia, his 6-foot-11 junior forward, is one of the better players in the conference. Pharrel Payne, the 6-9 sophomore center, is beginning to tap into his potential. We can finally watch Isaiah Ihnen and Parker Fox play after two years of injuries. It would have been a stronger lineup had Jamison Battle not bolted for Ohio State before this season.
Johnson was faced with quite a rebuilding task when he arrived, and the rise of the transfer portal and NIL money are additional challenges. But 22 wins in two seasons isn't growth. Year 3 must be about growth. Year 3 should be about distancing themselves from a 6-33 conference record over the previous two seasons. Year 3 needs to be about raising expectations and motivating fans to return to The Barn, one of college basketball's best environments when full.
We won't know how talented this Gophers team is until the percolator of the Big Ten schedule begins in December. But Thursday could provide evidence that the Gophers have moved onward and upward from rock-bottom basketball.