Even after a 10-1 start to his Gophers coaching tenure two years ago, Ben Johnson didn't expect to orchestrate a program turnaround overnight.
The Big Ten's youngest head coach had no experience and basically no returning players while trying to compete in one of college basketball's toughest conferences.
A ton of patience was necessary — until now.
Last season, the Gophers fell to their lowest point in years. After the program's first back-to-back seasons finishing last in the Big Ten, there's a sense of urgency for progress — from fans, from players and from Johnson himself.
The climate surrounding Gophers men's basketball changed. After finishing 4-16 in Big Ten play in Johnson's first season, the Gophers went 2-17 in conference play last season.
"You don't get that urgency unless you went through the bad," said Johnson, who finished 9-22 overall last season.
Bad on the court meant losing 14 of 16 games, including consecutive 30-point losses for the first time ever.
Bad in recruiting meant five-star, 7-foot senior Dennis Evans signing a letter of intent with the Gophers and then asking out to join Louisville.
The Gophers had a losing record at Williams Arena (6-11) and their fewest home wins in a season since 1967-68. A frustrated fan base led to the team's worst average home attendance (9,451) since 1970-71.
"I learned patience," Johnson said. "We have the right ingredients and game plan to be successful. Now it's my job to get us there and get it done."
The U's way of showing patience was extending Johnson's contract before last season through 2027. His buyout also changed, making it potentially more expensive to fire him after this season. In his original deal, the U agreed to pay 100% of the remaining $2 million annual base salary in his contract if it fired him after Year 1 or Year 2, and then 75% after this season.
The contract language now says the U would pay Johnson 100% of his remaining base salary if it fires him after this season.
Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle expressed his support for Johnson this fall.
"There was not going to be a quick fix," Coyle said. "But Ben clearly understands that winning is a big part of what we do here."
When Johnson was a Gophers assistant coach under Richard Pitino in 2015-16, the Gophers went 8-23. Johnson told his players this story and how adversity makes you stronger. The U made a 15-win improvement the following year and made the NCAA tournament.
That established a precedent for what a turnaround could look like with Johnson.
"It's only going to help our program," Johnson said about going through last year's struggles. "That's why I'm excited right now — hopefully all of that's in the past. If we can learn from it, me included, I think we have a really bright future."
'What would I do here?'
In early October, Purdue's Matt Painter was scratching his head at Big Ten media day imagining what he'd do in Johnson's shoes.
Painter, who has a team favored to win the Big Ten again, had tough years earlier in his tenure with the Boilermakers. But he never needed to rebuild in this era with the transfer portal and name, image and likeness (NIL) money changing the sport.
"[Johnson] was in the league as a player and assistant coach, so he has a good feel," Painter said. "But he got his [head coaching] job different than when I got mine. His landscape with everything that's going on, that's hard."
Purdue finished in last place in the Big Ten in 2006 and 2014 but has made eight straight trips to the NCAA tournament, including four Sweet 16s and one Elite Eight. Painter can appreciate Johnson's challenge.
"You have to take a step back and say, 'Man, what would I do here [to rebuild]?' " Painter said.
Johnson's philosophy for program building is old-school like Painter's. He relies more on recruiting high school talent than using the transfer portal. It works for Purdue, but will it work in Minnesota?
"We've taken the fewest amount of transfers than any other high major in the country," Painter said. "If it's just constantly people moving, then that gets to be really difficult. That's the challenge to all the coaches who start off. Do you have the ability to just keep recycling and being good? Most of them don't. Most guys have to get them and grow them."
Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell called Johnson a "good basketball coach" and said from his experience, "This isn't a quick-fix league."
Pikiell went from six combined Big Ten wins and last-place finishes in his first two seasons to seven league victories in Year 3. The Scarlet Knights then reached two straight NCAA tournaments and finished as high as fifth in the Big Ten.
"Anytime there's roster turnover and when you throw that in the middle of COVID, NIL and the portal, you're really in a tough stretch," Pikiell said. "When I took over, we were picked 14th every year. You have to understand the programs you need to beat out. And your administration and fan base have to be patient."
Northwestern's Chris Collins was last in the Big Ten in 2019 and combined for just 13 league wins during a three-year stretch. But his school gave him time to turn things around. The Wildcats won 22 games and had their best-ever Big Ten finish last season, tied for second place, earning their first NCAA tourney berth since 2017.
"We had a lot of older guys and guys who had been through it," Collins said. "They went from four [Big Ten] wins to six wins to seven wins. It was an upward trajectory. We lost some transfers but felt what we had in the room was strong enough to compete."
In his first year, Johnson had one returning player. Last season, he had two. The Gophers have four returners this season, led by preseason All-Big Ten junior Dawson Garcia.
The 6-11 former Prior Lake star wants to carry his home state Big Ten program back to prominence.
"If we want to be really good and be where we want to be, I've got to step up," Garcia said. "I've got to take my game to another level."
Garcia's supporting cast is mostly underclassmen, which means there could be more growing pains. Johnson has eight freshmen and sophomores combined. The Gophers brought in six transfers in 2021-22, but they added only three transfers in each of the past two seasons. Building an experienced roster has been tough, but the Gophers' style of play and identity could be different this season with more depth.
"We can play faster now because we do have a bench," Johnson said. "Guys aren't expected to play 30 to 35 minutes a game. You want to be able to increase [scoring]. But also defensively, hopefully, that will be an advantage for us to pick up the pace and be more aggressive."
Other than a specific number of wins, what does progress for Gophers men's basketball look like this season? Johnson said his players already know what the goals are for the program.
"They know it's to be competitive and compete for a Big Ten championship," Johnson said. "They know it's to make the NCAA tournament and make a run. That goes without saying. Now it's what we do as a team to put ourselves in position to have that successful year."