U men's basketball excited about future, with one big 'if' in play

Gophers athletics director Mark Coyle isn't in the habit of making big statements about his sports teams a year in advance.

The potential of Ben Johnson's Gophers men's basketball team next season already excites him.

"If everybody comes back, we'll be a top 25 team preseason next year," Coyle said recently. "I have no issues saying that at all. … Teams aren't going to want to play us."

Picked to finish last in the Big Ten, the Gophers are 18-12 overall, 9-10 in the Big Ten. If they win at Northwestern on Saturday night, they'll have their first .500 or better Big Ten regular season since 2017.

Making the NCAA tournament is a long shot this season, but the Gophers could get to 20 or more victories, perhaps by making a run in the Big Ten tournament next week at Target Center, or in the NIT.

And then, imagine if the Gophers' starting five of Elijah Hawkins, Mike Mitchell Jr., Cam Christie, Dawson Garcia and Pharrel Payne all return next season — along with key reserves like Parker Fox. It's possible.

"If we get everybody back, the way this team has played this year is there a chance we could really take a step next year?" Johnson said.

Finishing strong could give the Gophers momentum going into the offseason, but it also might just help keep their core intact. A big part of why Johnson's team made a considerable jump from 9-22 last season was the growth of players such as Payne, a sophomore big man.

"It's very important to end the season the right way," Payne said. "If we can take these wins and reflect on the whole season and take it into next year, we can probably do something [big]."

Unless you're Caitlin Clark or Zach Edey, the college basketball world isn't pressuring players to declare decisions to return before the season ends.

Garcia, Hawkins and Christie have already said they'll wait until after the season to talk about their futures.

"Just trying to focus on the rest of the season," Hawkins, a record-setting point guard, said before the 70-58 loss to Indiana on Wednesday.

"There's definitely a possibility," Garcia said about using his last year of eligibility. "It's really just going to be a decision — I'll make it quick in the spring because whatever I do, I want to be fully committed."

In front of NBA scouts Wednesday, Christie struggled with eight points on 2-for-13 shooting, but he had been on a hot streak in the last month. The 6-6 guard won his second Big Ten freshman of the week award Monday while generating some early draft buzz.

"When that time comes, then I'll focus on it," Christie said of talking to his family about the NBA, including brother Max, who was drafted after his freshman year at Michigan State.

The potential of young NBA prospects like Christie and Payne makes the program's possible future look even brighter. Johnson said even Fox, the team's 25-year-old sixth man, might want to stick around for a seventh year, which is available to him after two season-ending knee injuries.

"I'm sure there's a part of him that says … 'Why do I not want to be a part of that?' " Johnson said. "There are so many things that go into a decision."

No matter what happens at Northwestern and in next week's Big Ten tourney in Minneapolis, Johnson said the Gophers are proud of what they've already accomplished in a season that started with so much uncertainty.

"Our guys realize they played pretty good this year," Johnson said. "But I think anytime you can string consecutive wins or get a couple here late that obviously carries over to the [offseason]."