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2021-’22 Minnesota Golden Gophers Basketball Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Minnesota Golden Gophers and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2021-’22 season.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021-’22 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2021-’22 season with analysis on each program’s previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team’s starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local “insider” who covers said team.

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Despite arriving with plenty of hope and optimism, Richard Pitino entered last season firmly on the hot seat. Pitino had delivered two NCAA Tournament appearances, but had failed to get the consistency Gopher fans desired, swinging wildly between success and failure. Those struggles put Pitino on the edge of the cliff heading into last season.

Unfortunately, things didn’t end well. Minnesota finished the season with a 14-15 overall record, a brutal 6-14 mark in Big Ten play, and an even worse 2-10 to close the regular season. That led to Pitino’s departure and massive turnover of Minnesota’s roster, including the exit of key contributors like Marcus Carr and Both Gach. It marked the end of an era for Gopher basketball. One that had high hopes, but ended in disappointment.

The good news is there is some hope moving forward. The program hired Ben Johnson, who played for the Gophers in the early 2000s and has spent more than a decade as an assistant around the Midwest. And while the roster won’t overwhelm with talent, Johnson has added a plethora of pieces this offseason, including some noteworthy transfers. Gopher fans will have to hope these pieces can go to work immediately.

So, how far can Johnson take the Gophers in year one? Let’s take a look.

1. 2020-’21 Season Performance

  • Record: 14-15 (6-14)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #62
  • NET Rating: #81
  • Postseason Appearance: None

Last season was a bizarre one for Minnesota. Not because of the finish or overall performance, but because of how it occurred. The Gophers started the season with exceptional play before nose diving in the final months of the season, specifically in late February and March. Just look at how Minnesota’s first 15 games compared to its last 14 games:

Minnesota’s First 15 Games:

  • 11-4 overall record;
  • Seven wins over top 100 opponents;
  • Three top 15 wins; and
  • No home losses.

Minnesota’s Final 14 Games:

  • 3-11 overall record;
  • Two wins over top 100 opponents;
  • Zero top 20 wins; and
  • Four home losses.

That’s an incredible gap for one team in a single season. Minnesota went from playing at a top 25 level to one of the worst teams in the Big Ten. And simply put, that’s what went wrong for the Gophers this season. Minnesota lost its edge and never recovered. It went from beating teams like Michigan and Ohio State to losing to Nebraska and Northwestern. It’s one of the worst collapse in the recent history of the Big Ten and led to Pitino’s dismissal.

The highlights of the season included the non-conference win over Saint Louis and the upset wins over Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, and Purdue. Low points included the 3-11 finish to the season, including the home loss to Northwestern and the losses to Indiana and Nebraska. The loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament was also rough, simply because the Gophers had played quite well in the game before falling short.

Individual statistical leaders were Marcus Carr, Brandon Johnson, and Liam Robbins. Carr led the team in minutes, points, assists, steals, and total win shares. Johnson led the team in rebounds. Robbins led the team in blocks.

2. Offseason Exits

The Gophers were absolutely decimated by offseason departures. It isn’t surprising given last season’s struggles, the coaching turnover, and the pandemic, but it’s rare to see a team get hit this hard in an offseason. The team basically lost its entire roster from last season, with only a few guys returning.

It’s hard to even point out a few “significant” departures given the sheer number of players walking out the door. However, the departures of Marcus Carr and Liam Robbins are certainly notable. They were arguably Minnesota’s best players when the Gophers were winning games early in the season and both are now out the door. Carr was one of the league’s most prolific scorers and dominated the team’s usage. Robbins was also a monster on the boards.

The staff will also have to replace players like Both Gach, Brandon Johnson, Gabe Kalcheur, Jamal Mashburn, and Tre Williams. All told, the team is losing its top seven players in minutes played, which is an unbelievable statistic. The only players of note who return are Eric Curry and Isaiah Ihnen and neither even averaged 20 minutes a game. Ihnen is also dealing with injury challenges. It’s going to be quite a challenge to replace an entire roster in an offseason.

3. New Additions

This season, the Gophers are adding two recruits and numerous transfers. The recruits are Abdoulaye Thiam and Treyton Thompson. Both have some upside, as Thompson is rated as a three-star and Thiam looks like one of the better JUCO prospects per 247Sports. The recruiting site lists Thiam as a combo guard and Thompson as a center. Jackson Purcell and Will Ramberg join the program as walk-ons.

As noted above, neither of the two incoming recruits look like sure fire stars from day one. Thompson is a nice prospect with upside potential, but it’s hard to say he’s ready to contribute this year, even if he does have impressive 6-foot-11 size. Thiam is a JUCO player with plenty of potential. Thiam played on one of the better JUCO teams last year and averaged 15 points a game and shot nearly 50 percent from three.

The transfers are Jamison Battle, Charlie Daniels, Parker Fox, Joey Kern, Luke Loewe, Danny Ogele, Eylijah Stephens, Sean Sutherlin, and Payton Willis. Battle comes from George Washington, Daniels comes from Stephen F. Austin, Fox comes from Northern State, Kern comes from John Hopkins, Loewe comes from Williams & Mary, Ogele comes from Navy, Stephens comes from Lafayette, Sutherlin comes from New Hampshire, and Willis comes from Charleston. Here is a quick breakdown of the transfers:

  • Guards: Kern, Loewe, Stephens, Sutherlin, Willis
  • Wings: Battle, Daniels, Fox, Ogele

The most notable players in this group are probably Willis, Loewe, and Battle. All three project as starter-caliber players. Stephens and Sutherlin also seem like players who should get early minutes. Notably, this is Willis’ second stint in Minnesota after a prior transfer.

4. Points of Optimism

Look, there’s little debating Minnesota enters this season with low expectations. The Gophers aren’t expected to contend for much (if anything) this year and will be underdogs in virtually every marquee game they play. However, there are some things fans can look for this season to get excited about. Let’s dive into some of them.

To start, there’s always something exciting about the introduction of a new coaching staff. This will be a fresh approach from fresh faces. After nearly a decade of Pitino, it was time for a change and Gopher fans will get to see that this year. Change doesn’t always guarantee success, but there’s always a sense of excitement with something new. Johnson brings a solid history with him to Minnesota and it will be interesting to see how he does in year one.

Minnesota’s roster also has a chance of being sneakily good this year. The Gophers have few known pieces, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While Minnesota has plenty of question marks, that doesn’t guarantee failure. The team is adding a boatload of unproven additions. However, it seems likely at least some of them will hit. And even if only a few hit, Minnesota could be much better than expected.

The team also has a few potential breakout players. Eric Curry is back after a few nice performances and the program adds interesting transfers in Loewe, Thiam, and Willis. All three could be solid players this season. And again, if even a few of these guys hit, Minnesota could be a dangerous team.

5. Points of Concern

This is where this preview will lose some of its spark. As noted above, Minnesota enters this season with low expectations. The Gophers aren’t expected to do much this season and for good reason: Minnesota’s roster looks pretty weak and there aren’t many obvious solutions.

The primary obstacle Minnesota will have to overcome will be the significant offseason departures. Minnesota’s roster didn’t just lose a few players, it was decimated. The Gophers are essentially trying to rebuild an entire roster in a few months. And while that’s easier to do in the age of transfers, it’s a nearly impossible task. Johnson and his staff did a nice job of minimizing the damage, but you can only do so much.

Additionally, while there are potential breakout players, none of them look like top-tier Big Ten players. Sure, Curry or Thiam might do something, but over performing expectations and doing enough to compete in the Big Ten are completely different things. Even if these players do surprise, it’s probably not going to be enough. And that’s the primary issue here. Minnesota is in a rebuilding year and basically needs everything to go right to have a shot.

6. Top Player

Minnesota enters this season without a “best player” after Carr and Robbins headed elsewhere. However, there are a few players who could have breakout seasons. The primary options appear to be Curry, Loewe, Thiam, and Willis. Curry is arguably the team’s most proven returner and the other three arrive after decent seasons elsewhere. Battle also looks like a sleeper after solid play in the A10 last year.

There’s really no telling what will happen here. We’re talking about a roster filled with question marks. There are interesting returners, transfers, and incoming recruits. However, every player on the roster has question marks. There is nothing set in stone. We’ll have to wait and see how things shake out.

7. 2021-’22 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/1 - Concordia (St. Paul)
  • 11/9 - Kansas City
  • 11/12 - Western Kentucky (Asheville, NC)
  • 11/14 - Princeton/South Carolina (Asheville, NC)
  • 11/19 - Purdue (Fort Wayne)
  • 11/24 - Jacksonville
  • 11/30 - at Pittsburgh
  • 12/5 - at Mississippi State
  • 12/8 - Michigan State
  • 12/11 - at Michigan
  • 12/14 - Texas A&M Corpus Christi
  • 12/22 - Green Bay
  • 12/29 - Alcorn State
  • 1/2 - Illinois
  • 1/9 - at Indiana
  • 1/12 - at Michigan State
  • 1/16 - Iowa
  • 1/19 - at Penn State
  • 1/22 - Rutgers
  • 1/27 - Ohio State
  • 1/30 - at Wisconsin
  • 2/2 - Purdue
  • 2/6 - at Iowa
  • 2/9 - at Nebraska
  • 2/12 - Penn State
  • 2/15 - at Ohio State
  • 2/19 - Northwestern
  • 2/23 - Wisconsin
  • 2/27 - Indiana
  • 3/2 - at Maryland
  • 3/6 - at Northwestern

This projects to be a pretty fun schedule. Minnesota gets a few warmup games before heading to North Carolina for two intriguing tournament games. The team then gets a pretty manageable close to non-conference play. Minnesota will be an underdog against teams like Pittsburgh and Mississippi State, but those certainly aren’t unbeatable opponents. Fans should simply be hoping for an upset win or two along the way.

Of course, Big Ten play is largely as expected. It’s going to be a monumental challenge for the Gophers to make it through conference play with a winning record. This is a really deep league with half the conference in the top 25 picture. For a team in a rebuilding season, that’s not exactly a best case scenario. This is going to be a challenging slate.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the schedule comes late, with these games noted with each team’s present KenPom rating:

  • 2/9 - at No. 81 Nebraska
  • 2/12 - No. 70 Penn State
  • 2/15 - at No. 8 Ohio State
  • 2/19 - No. 48 Northwestern
  • 2/23 - No. 44 Wisconsin
  • 2/27 - No. 31 Indiana
  • 3/2 - at No. 18 Maryland
  • 3/6 - at No. 48 Northwestern

The Gophers will be underdogs in most (if not all) those games, but at least six of those games look pretty winnable. If Minnesota can show some improvement during the season and protect home court, perhaps the team can build some momentum here. Minnesota is absolutely capable of picking off teams like Nebraska, Northwestern, and Penn State.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Payton Willis (Rs. Sr.) - 65%
  • SG: Abdoulaye Thiam (Fr.) - 70%
  • SF: Luke Loewe (Sr.) - 55%
  • PF: Jamison Battle (So.) - 80%
  • C: Eric Curry (Rs. Sr) - 80%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

This is arguably one of the most difficult sections to write of any preview in this year’s Big Ten. Minnesota enters this season with essentially a new roster and a plethora of questions about the team’s depth chart, lineup, and coaching staff. There’s just not a lot known about this year’s Gopher squad. The team is a bit of mystery.

With that said, Minnesota figures to have a few players who will emerge and lock down starting spots. In the backcourt, the prime candidates appear to be Willis and Thiam. Willis previously played at Minnesota and has returned for a second stint. He should provide an experienced hand at the point, where experience is crucial. Thiam should start alongside him. He’s a productive outside shooter who can create his own shot.

In the same vein, the wing group figures to be led by new additions in Loewe and Battle. Loewe was a productive offensive player at William & Mary and one of the better passers in the CAA last season. Battle is a high usage player and a pretty efficient shooter, leading the Atlantic 10 in effective field goal percentage in an abbreviated season.

It’s difficult to tell who will be bench contributors behind these four. Johnson and his staff will certainly try to play guys at multiple positions to mitigate a relatively thin roster, but we also don’t know how a Johnson lineup will look either. It’s reasonable to believe transfers like Fox, Stephens, and Sutherlin will see time, but where and how much? This is where things could get challenging for the Gophers. They desperately need a few of these guys to hit the ground running this season. Otherwise, even one or two injuries could derail the season.

Upfront, expect Curry and Thompson to take most of the minutes. This projects as a relatively undersized team upfront, so Minnesota is going to have to deploy some small ball lineups. Curry has shown promise in his limited time. Fans will hope he can build off that and Thompson can be ready to go as a true freshman.

Given the team’s preseason expectations, there’s actually more here than some might expect. Every position has at least a player who could be decent this season, including a few transfers who put up solid offensive numbers at their previous stops. If these players can hit the ground running, Minnesota could be really feisty.

Unfortunately, the downside is also the team’s strength. A lot of these guys have potential, but none are proven and expecting five transfers to hit in one offseason is asking a lot. There will be some real growing pains here for Johnson and his staff.

9. Realistic Team Goals

If you’ve read through the preview so far, this section shouldn’t come as a surprise. Minnesota isn’t going to be a serious Big Ten contender this season. In fact, Minnesota’s probably not even going to be a serious NCAA contender this year. This is a complete roster overhaul. It’s going to take a few years before the Gophers can build the base to pursue those kinds of goals.

However, there are some important goals on the table. To start, Minnesota can get back to respectability. The Gophers weren’t a terrible team last season, but they finished like it. This team needs to get back to competitive play, protecting home court, and taking care of the games it should. Scoring a rivalry win or two would likewise assist the program going forward.

10. Overall Season Outlook

After nearly a decade of inconsistency, Minnesota finally decided to pull the plug on Pitino this offseason. Some may believe the decision came too late, but the consensus certainly suggested it was time for a fresh face in Minneapolis.

The program decided to turn to Johnson, who arrives with a solid pedigree as a player and an assistant coach. He’s familiar with the Big Ten and should bring an edge in recruiting. There’s a lot to like about how the program could look with him at the helm.

Unfortunately, he inherits a roster in flux. There was a mass exodus following the season, giving Johnson the nearly impossible task of building a roster in a few months. He performed admirably, adding a plethora of transfers. However, it leaves the team with low expectations entering this season.

Minnesota won’t be a great team this season. In fact, the Gophers could very well be an absolute mess. When you have a complete roster overhaul, it’s a genuine possibility. However, the Gophers have a chance to over perform expectations if a few players hit the ground running. And that’s what fans will have to hope for right now.

Big Ten Prediction: 13th Place