Offseason questions to Minnesota Gopher Basketball and Ben Johnson

Ben Johnson was hired on March 21, 2021 and quickly discovered that not only did he have to hire a coaching staff, but he also lost almost his entire roster. What followed was an insane battle to put together a list that could compete in the Big Ten.

None of this is new information for those of us who are mindful. And if you are reading this, you are definitely paying attention. But the list was completely reversed and replaced with a hodge group of players moving up from low- and middle-major. The season was what it was and now we come to Johnson’s second offseason. Truly the first with some kind of stability and a better understanding of how he is going to manage his list and program.

But there will still be significant revenue from last season. Eight of the team’s 13 scholarship players are no longer eligible to play. And really, there were only 6 guys who consistently played meaningful minutes this season. Of these 6, only Jamison Battle returns. You can include Treyton Thompson as a 7th player who got meaningful minutes if you will.

The point is, you replace 8 scholarships, and you replace 5/6 of your largest contributors.

This leaves a lot of questions for the offseason. Here are the biggest ones.

Who moves out?

It happens every year. Every single year. Every year when the transfer meant having to sit out for a year. And you know it’s going to happen in the era of the transfer portal. Keep in mind that over 37% of D1 lists were traded last year. That number looks set to rise this year.

So who will be the transfers from this year’s list?

The two recurring ones that provided meaningful minutes during the Big Ten part of the schedule are Battle and Thompson. Losing any of them seems unlikely, and the loss of Battle would be quite significant.

Isaiah Ihnen and Parker Fox both spent the season recovering from a serious injury. They are ready to return and contribute. More on them later, but a replacement seems unlikely for both of them.

This leaves us with 2 players. Danny Ogele and Abdoulaye Thiam.

I “think” that Ogele would have 1 more year to play if he wanted to. His first season in D2 Mercyhurst was interrupted by an injury, so provided he wore a medical red jersey, he would be able to play one more season. If so, will he then go to another program where playing time can be more achievable? Will he play one more season for a Big Ten program in a similar role as last year? Or will he take his exam and go home and move on with this young-adult life.

Then it brings us to Thiam. An energetic and resilient guard who has 3 more seasons of eligibility. He is credited with shooting 48% from three during his one JUCO season, and there was hope he would add some offense to this year’s Gopher squad. But Thiam was never able to break the tight rotation. So he sees that playing time gets limited and decides to go elsewhere? Maybe. Does he continue to do the things that are asked of him and trust that he will be a regular contributor sooner rather than later? Maybe. He is probably the biggest transfer risk.

Who moves in?

There are at least 8 open scholarships, 4 of which are taken by incoming freshmen. So Ben Johnson and staff probably have 4 scholarships available to accommodate inbound transfers. So this is the funny part … who’s going to be a Gopher?

First, we need to understand what is needed. And the two biggest needs are point guard and a big man. There really are no good options for PG on the current list, so staff desperately need to find a starting caliber. A point and a great man would be the priorities. Then I think the need for more talent and talent that fits into what they are trying to do would be welcome.

There are 2 big names that are potential transfer candidates. Both are currently on the North Carolina Tar Heels list, and both are former Minnesota high school players who were heavily recruited by former Gopher staff. None of them have officially declared for the transfer portal, this is pure speculation.

Kerwin Walton committed to UNC out of high school, playing over 20 minutes per game. fight as a rookie last year but then this season in February so his minutes disappear. In the Tar Heels NCAA Tournament race, he played only 1 minute in the team’s last 3 games. Because of this drop in minutes, there is speculation that he may want to switch. And maybe he would be excited to play for Ben Johnson and the Gophers.

Dawson Garcia spent his first year with Marquette before switching to UNC for this season. He started 12 games for Tar Heels and averaged 9 points and 5.5 rebounds before leaving the team in mid-January to return home for some family things. It is unclear if there is more in the story, but again there is speculation that he may soon hit the portal. And maybe he also wants to return to Minnesota and play in the Big Ten.

After the two big names, Gophers gets their name in the mix with quite a few other low- and medium-sized players who have already hit the portal.

  • PG – Nick Honor – Clemson – Clemson was his 2nd team for just as many years, but a starting caliber PG from a P5 program would be really good for us. Honor would have 2 years left to play.
  • PG – Sam Sessoms – Penn State – Has included Gophers in his last 6 along with Michigan, Mississippi State and a few mid-majors. Sessoms would only have 1 year left to play.
  • PG – Kyrell Luc – Holy Cross – was Patriot League Rookie of the Year and had an average of 13 ppg. Luc would have 3 seasons left to play.
  • G – Cam Spencer – Loyola Maryland – 1st team All Patriot league with an average of almost 19 ppg. Spencer would have 2 years of eligibility.
  • F – Michael Jones – Davidson – former Woodbury prep standout, shot over 42% from three, started all 34 matches for A10 champs. Jones would have 2 years to play.
  • PG – Ryan Larson – Wofford – would have 1 year to play and at least would give PG depth.

There are so many other names popping up as the portal grows by the hour. These were just a few featured names, but expect the Gopher staff to be very active on the portal.

What can we expect from the upcoming freshmen?

This can really be a better question for the fall when we start previewing the season. But this incoming first-year class is really important to the foundation of the program. Adding more 1-year transfers each season is not a way to build a foundation and create lasting success.

The question really will be, how ready are these guys to play Big Ten basketball? Of the four who come in, can 2 or 3 of them be ready to play and help increase the program’s overall talent?

Depending on where you look for rankings and player ratings, these guys are basically all 3-star recruits, ranging in the range of 150-250. These are all good players, they all had offers from other P5 programs and could all turn out to be very good Big Ten players. We’ll get into this in more detail at a later date, but if the staff hits a couple of these freshmen, if they become impact players, then the 2022-23 season will start to look very different.

What can we get out of the injured players?

We must not forget Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen. Two guys who definitely would have helped in the exhausted and thin front row last year. When we start training next October, both of these guys will be more than a year away from their injury. How much will they not only play but contribute?

Ideally, they are both healthy and talented enough to be part of the regular rotation, giving the staff two guys who are able to play inside and hopefully add depth. This year’s iron 6 was not ideal. Getting Fox and Ihnen back and playing well will go a long way towards next year’s team going 7 or 8 deep.

What did the staff learn?

This is the first of 2 offseason questions I have for the coaching staff? This was clearly Ben Johnson’s first season ever as head coach. We heard so many interviews last season where we asked him what kind of things surprised him or what he learned on the go.

But far more important than how he adapted to season 1, is what he learned for season 2?

I could imagine it vaguely resembling a player going from their freshman year to second season. Now the second time you have a much better understanding of what is expected of you on and off the court. You have learned how to manage your time, and hopefully you have learned what kind of habits you need to use if you want to be successful.

The same went for coach Johnson and the rest of his staff. Now he should have a better understanding of how his time should be structured, how he and his assistants communicate, and hopefully he has learned how to do better this year.

This also applies to the staff. A year ago right now, they got to know each other, refined their recruitment pitch, and found out who does what and who does it best. At the same time trying to get 13 scholarship players on the list. Second time should be better.

What can we do with player development?

We really have no idea if this staff will be good at developing their players. Some coaches are very good at using offseason to really get more from the inside out. Wisconsin is praised for this. I strongly feel that Ed Conroy was very good at developing great man from the Pitino staff. Do these staff have the ability to make their own guys better?

Can they get Thiam to play a better defense and find a good shot within the attack? If so, he could go from a non-contributor to someone valuable to the success of this team.

Can Treyton Thompson go from a few glimpses of being good to being a consistent producer at both ends of the floor?

I really do not expect more statistical improvement from Battle, which on average had over 17 points and 6 rebounds per game. match. But can he improve his FG%? Can he become a better defender? Can he increase his assists by finding teammates at the right times? Maybe he has on average only 16 points per. match next year, but overall he helps his teammates to score 4 points more per. match.

This will be interesting and another key question to be answered in the offseason.

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