Neal: Keeping Gophers together is Johnson's next challenge

Rick Rickert was a phenom from Duluth East in 2001 when he joined the Gophers. He remembers a transfer from Northwestern who ran the scout team during practices that year.

"You could definitely see the leadership come out in him," Rickert said. "I didn't think coaching would be in his future, I was just thinking he was a good cat."

Ben Johnson was the leader of that scout team before he played his final two seasons for the Gophers. Johnson's basketball life has brought him back to Minnesota to revive the Gophers program. Rickert was one of many former teammates to congratulate Johnson when he landed the job.

After two awful seasons during which the Gophers went 22-39 — including 6-33 in the Big Ten — Johnson's crew has won 19 games this season, including Tuesday's first-round NIT victory over Butler, and will play Indiana State in the second round Sunday. The Sycamores are the tourney's top seed. Regardless of the outcome, Johnson has had the season he desperately needed.

Picked to be the caboose of the Big Ten train this year, the Gophers went 9-11 in conference play and sent a message: no more rock-bottom basketball.

Rickert is thrilled — as well as relieved — for his former teammate.

"I gotta be honest: I was always really nervous for him going into this year because he'd had very underwhelming performances the past two years," Rickert said. "Your first year should be your worst year. They should get better from there. But the second year wasn't much better. I was like, man, he has another bad year, they're just gonna let him go because you can't have just losing seasons, but really bad losing seasons. We grew up in the Clem Haskins era so we were used to winning. I'm glad he has had some success this year."

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Johnson's roster construction included two newcomers who have helped stabilize the program. Transfer point guard Elijah Hawkins got the most out of the offense. Freshman Cam Christie was second on the team in scoring average. While Hawkins is expected back next season, Christie could leave if there's a chance he can be drafted.

This is Johnson's next challenge: building on this season and keeping his roster intact. Winning 19 games, 10 more than last season, should help with recruiting — meaning recruiting prep stars, recruiting in the transfer portal and even re-recruiting his current players and keeping them out of that portal.

Johnson has two talented Minnesotans coming on as freshmen next season in the two stars from up north: Isaac Asuma (Cherry) and Grayson Grove (Alexandria). Johnson, however, needs more success in the metro.

The Star Tribune released its annual All-Metro boys basketball team last week. Of the 25 players on the first, second and honorable mention teams, none are committed to the Gophers. Two are going to Wisconsin. Two are headed to Colorado State.

Rickert lives in Sandpoint, Idaho, where he sells health and life insurance for the Healthcare Solutions Team. Why Idaho? His wife, Cici, has family there and they used to visit. Then they decided to settle there. He's about 75 miles from Gonzaga University, where he would play pickup games during offseasons. He was a second-round pick of the Timberwolves in 2003 but his 16-year professional career was spent mostly overseas, including Australia and Japan.

He has monitored the Gophers from afar and believes Johnson can make Minnesota a consistent winner because of his leadership skills and discipline — qualities Rickert saw in his teammate many years ago.

This was the season Johnson needed to stabilize the program while keeping his seat from getting warm. "A little more than warm," Rickert said with a chuckle.

Then he added: "You have to get that reputation back. And I think he's in the beginning stages of that. It takes time."