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Non-Conference Preview: the Minnesota Golden Gophers

One of the worst high major programs from last year welcomes the Tigers for Mizzou’s first true road test.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Who’s ready for more previewin’?

Here are the dates (complete with any links to previous previews):

So here’s what we know so far:

So that means it’s time to look at the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Let’s dive in!

Head Coach | Ben Johnson | 3rd Season 22-39

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Nebraska Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes, as they say, be careful what you ask for.

After 8 seasons Minnesota fired Richard Pitino. Pitino had made the NCAA Tournament just twice in those 8 seasons. Three of those seasons saw the Gophers win 20 games or more and two seasons saw them finish outside of the KenPom top 100. It was evident Pitino hadn’t elevated the program. So when Minnesota decided to move on from him the question became about who would replace him.

Eventually they landed on Ben Johnson, a former Gopher and Minneapolis native. Johnson played under Dan Monson and then returned to the bench to help Pitino where he landed some important in state recruits between 2013 and 2018. So his pitch for landing the job was simple, despite having no head coaching experience, if he could help keep the in state talent home he could build back the program to what fans wanted.

In 2019 3 top 100 in state recruits went elsewhere. 2020 saw 4 top 100 in state recruits choose other schools. Chet Holmgren, in 2021, chose Gonzaga. Since taking the job Johnson has done well with in state recruits, and he’s brought back Dawson Garcia as a transfer, but the wins haven’t come. Minnesota finished second to last in season one and last in the Big 10 last year. This is an important season for the Gophers and more specifically, Ben Johnson.

Series History | Minnesota leads 2-0

It’s surprising to see two high major level programs with virtually no history at all but here we are. The last time Mizzou and Minnesota faced each other was in the 1960-61 season. The two programs played in December of 1959 and December of 1960 and Missouri dropped both games.

In 1959 the Gophers were led by Senior 6’7 Center Ron Johnson who was too much for Sparky Stalcup’s Tigers. So yeah, it’s been a while.

Minnesota has had 9 coaches since the teams last met, and Missouri has had 8. It would probably have been more had Norm Steward not been around for 31 of the 62 years since the two programs played.

What about the team now?

I mentioned Dawson Garcia above, and he’s the Gophers top scorer from a year ago. Garcia was a top 40 prospect who committed to Marquette out of high school, then transferred to North Carolina after Steve Wojciechowski was let go at Marquette. After a bit of a detour he landed back at Minnesota where he averaged 15 points and 6 rebounds for a pretty poor Gophers team last season.

As the leading scorer, it was important to keep Garcia around. Especially since the next two leading scorers, Jamison Battle and Ta’Lon Cooper, both transferred out. Battle to Ohio State and Cooper to South Carolina.

Three of the next four top scorers, Pharrel Payne, Joshua Ola-Joseph, and Braeden Carrington all return from the 2022 recruiting class. Like most programs Minnesota added a few transfers. Mike Mitchell, a point guard from Pepperdine and a reliable shooter, transferred in this offseason after averaging 11.4 points per game as a sophomore for the Waves. Also coming in is Elijah Hawkins from Howard. Hawkins averaged 12.9 points for the Bison.Parker Fox, a transfer big man who has spent the last two seasons on the shelf with various injuries is finally healthy as well.

If all of that sounds like it’s promising for a team looking to get out of the basement, then here’s the other side. The Gophers were really far deep into the basement last season. The Big 10 was the second best conference per’s conference ratings from last year. The Gophers were 216th in KenPom last year, which is 24 spots worse than even Kim Anderson’s worst year in 2014-15. It was also 122 spots lower than the next worst team in the Big 10.

So while there might be some reason to hope the Gophers can turn it around under Johnson, it remains a long difficult road back. Jumping up 70-100 spots is always possible in today’s game with the high levels of roster turnover. It’s just the odds of doing it in the Big 10 make it that much more difficult.