MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The takeover of any major college basketball program is already a big job, and Ben Johnson’s start at Minnesota was tasked with the most basic need.
Only two Gophers decided to return from the previous season, the perfect storm of roster turnover created by the coaching change and the frenzy of the NCAA transfer portal that swung open offering immediate eligibility for the first time to every student-athlete switching schools.
“I knew there was going to be a draw to that, because it was new,” Johnson said. “Everybody likes new.”
Johnson and his assistants thus had to give their recruiting abilities a rigorous workout. Rather than explicitly pursuing post defenders or combo guards, they had one prevailing priority in mind: personality.
“Getting guys who want to be here is so important, especially on that ground level when you’re trying to build it,” said Johnson, who was hired by his alma mater in March to replace Richard Pitino. “You’ve got to have the right pieces to help win the locker room.”
The Gophers have quickly established themselves as a contender for the off-the-court national championship, if there were such an award. With 10 transfers from other four-year college programs and three freshmen on their 15-man roster, Johnson and his staff have overseen a case study in creating instant chemistry.
“We’re around each other all the time,” said leading scorer Jamison Battle, who transferred from George Washington and relished the summer bonding sessions at the practice facility over movies and shows in the player lounge after informal workouts. “We like each other’s presence, and I think it brings out greatness in teams.”
This Gophers team is unlikely to be bound for greatness in the unrelenting Big Ten, having been picked to finish last in multiple preseason media polls. But it's hard to nitpick undefeated. They're sporting one of the 12 remaining unblemished records in Division I, entering the conference opener on Wednesday against 19th-ranked Michigan State.
Their early success on the court can't be separated from the camaraderie they've forged behind the scenes, and winning at Mississippi State on Sunday was the clearest sign of progress.
“Nobody came here to just have this be the highlight of the year,” Johnson said Tuesday. “We came here because we want to see how far we can take it, but that only happens if you continue to be who you are and you don’t get caught up in the other stuff.”
Eighteen seasons after he departed the Gophers as a player, spending six years as an assistant along the way, Johnson has the reins of a program that has been perpetually stuck in the middle or at the bottom of the Big Ten since its lone Final Four appearance in 1997 and the academic fraud penalties that set it back soon after.
Johnson, who will turn 41 later this month, was picked by athletic director Mark Coyle to provide a fresh spark and strengthen relationships with the state's high schools and amateur circuits to better mine a rich source of local talent that has produced a steady stream of high-major college stars and some NBA players in recent years.
“You want a fair shake with the in-state players who are good enough. If you do show the attention, you are consistent, you recruit them hard and recruit them the right way, that’s going to put you in position to get them,” Johnson said. “That’s the ultimate goal. You want the top players in the state to hopefully feel that way, and then it’s on us to have the follow-through.”
The native of Minneapolis is a natural leader, a former point guard not that far removed from the bright lights of Big Ten play who has been intentional about communicating belief in his best shooters like Battle and point guard Payton Willis to keep at it during the course of a game.
“I want these guys to have that irrational confidence, but I can do that because if you recruit kids that can shoot and you recruit kids that can play and that are smart and have a high IQ, it’s a lot easier to give those guys a leash because you’ve seen it over time,” Johnson said.
The Gophers are especially short on depth, giving more than 85% of their minutes to the starting five, so that chemistry will continue to be perhaps their greatest strength moving forward. Green-lighting an undersized power forward like the 6-foot-7 Battle to shoot from deep, even way deep, can be another asset.
“It opens up the floor. We need some of those weird things on offense,” Johnson said. "If I’m thinking I’m going to go out there and out-execute any coach in this league and just do my deal, I’m crazy. We have to be different. We have to think outside the box and be creative with what we do.”
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