The 2022-’23 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2022-’23 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.
In 1997 the Golden Gophers made it to the Final Four before losing to Kentucky. In the years to follow that Final Four appearance would be voided, but it was also the last time Minnesota has had much of any success. In the following 25 years Minnesota have made it to only six NCAA Tournaments and won just two NCAA Tournament games, with former coach Richard Pitino winning one of those games over eight season as Minnesota’s head coach.
The lack of success eventually led to the administration moving on from Pitino, bringing in first year head coach Ben Johnson. Johnson had played college basketball for both Minnesota and Northwestern, and had spent time as an assistant on the Gophers coaching staff in years past. His first season in Minneapolis didn’t go particularly well, with Minnesota tying for last place and finishing 13-17 overall. That’s not a huge surprise considering the mass exodus of talent that transferred out when he was hired, as well as the six man rotation Johnson utilized most nights.
Now entering his second season as coach the Gophers find themselves in familiar territory, losing a good majority of last years roster and once again having to rely on a laundry list of fresh faces. The only difference this time is it looks like Johnson has brought in a bit more talent and size this time around, sacrificing experience but likely positioning himself better to build towards the future.
1. 2021-’22 Season Performance
- Record: 13-17 (4-16, 13th (tie) in Big Ten)
- KenPom Team Rating: #109
- NET Rating: #109
- Postseason Appearance: None
After eight seasons as head coach Minnesota finally decided to part ways with Richard Pitino. Pitino won 25 games and the NIT in his first season with the Gophers before winning only 26 games over the next two seasons. A three year stretch in the middle of his tenure that saw two NCAA Tournament appearances helped keep Pitino in town, but after back-to-back losing seasons Minnesota moved on and hired Ben Johnson.
The departure of Pitino left Minnesota laughably thin last season, with the teams top seven scorers in 2020-21 all transferring out of the program (most of which became immediate starters at their new schools). It gets even worse, with six of the remaining seven players not playing a single minute for Minnesota last season for one reason or another (Sam Freeman transferred to Pacific, Isaiah Ihnen was injured), That left only oft injured Eric Curry, who averaged 7.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per game in 26 games.
It probably shouldn’t be a huge surprise that a team rebuilt on the fly by a first year coach struggled last season, with Minnesota ranking 285th in points per game and 183rd in defensive scoring. When both your offense and defense are notably bad you’re going to have problems and it’s safe to say the Minnesota did not have an enjoyable season last year.
It actually started off better than expected, with a 10-1 start through 2021, a road win at Michigan and the only loss being an eight point defeat to a ranked Michigan State. Of course the non-conference slate was relatively weak and once conference play started the wheels quickly fell off the bus as Minnesota started 2022 going 1-9. There was a period earlier in Big Ten play where Minnesota found themselves hanging around most nights before fading down the stretch, not a huge surprise considering their lack of depth and experience. After a few woeful losses, including getting beat by 25 and 21 in back to back games by Ohio State and Penn State, Minnesota came close to landing upsets against Wisconsin and Indiana late in the year.
When everything was said and done the Gophers tied for last in the Big Ten with Nebraska, going 4-16 in conference play. They took a lead into the locker room at halftime against Penn State in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament before ultimately losing 51-60.
2. Offseason Exits
- Payton Willis, G (15.9 ppg, 4.3 apg)
- E.J. Stephens, G (10.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg)
- Luke Loewe, G (8.1 ppg, 2.4 apg)
- Eric Curry, F (7.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg)
- Sean Sutherlin, G (7.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg)
Just above this section I mentioned Minnesota had to basically replace everyone on their roster last season. Well they get to do that once again this year. They do return leading scorer and best player Jamison Battle, but the next five leading scorers are all gone this season, including their entire backcourt in Payton Willis, E.J. Stephens, Luke Loewe and Sean Sutherlin. Outside of Battle the only two players that played last season returning are center Treyton Thompson, who played in 19 games (1 start) and walk-on guard Will Ramberg who averaged 0.4 points and 0.3 rebounds per game in limited minutes.
Normally a mass exodus of basically everyone on the roster besides your best player and a backup center could prove problematic, but the Gophers had a rotation last season that commonly saw six players play most nights and basically next to nothing past that. There’s always turnover when a new coach comes in, but Minnesota’s thin roster was truly an eye popping experience. The Gophers this time around have a bit more talent coming in, so that should hopefully allow Ben Johnson the ability to construct a deeper rotation in his second season.
3. New Additions
- 3-Star Guard Jaden Henley
- 3-Star Guard Braeden Carrington
- 3-Star Forward Joshua Ola-Joseph
- 3-Star Forward Pharrel Payne
- 3-Star Forward Kadyn Betts
- Junior Guard Ta’Lon Cooper (transfer from Morehead State)
- Sophomore Forward Dawson Garcia (transfer from North Carolina)
- Senior Guard Taurus Samuels (transfer from Dartmouth)
There’s plenty of new faces this year with Minnesota bringing in five three-star recruits alongside several transfers from outside of the program. The biggest addition is 6’11” forward Dawson Garcia, a sophomore transfer that started at Marquette as a freshman and then started 12 games last year for North Carolina before leaving the Tar Heels midseason. In 43 games Dawson has averaged 11.5 and 6.2 rebounds per game, while also hitting 36.2% from three. He’s clearly the best addition to the roster this season and Dawson alongside junior Jamison Battle give Minnesota a solid core to build around.
Ta’Lon Cooper, a transfer from Morehead State that averaged 9.1 points and 5.9 assists per game last season, will likely end up as Minnesota’s starting point guard at the beginning of the season. Cooper was seventh in the nation in assists per game and 16th in assist-turnover ratio. While the Big Ten is a step up from the OVC, he brings some much needed experience to the backcourt. Taurus Samuels will also join the backcourt after transferring in from Dartmouth. Last season he averaged 9.4 points and 1.7 assists per game while shooting 31.3% from three.
The incoming recruiting class includes a pair of three-star guards and several three-star forwards, a notable step up from last years recruiting class that only included three-star center Treyton Thompson and unranked guard Abdoulaye Thiam. Guard Braeden Carrington was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball while Johnson called big man Pharrel Payne an “underrated” recruit.
While the five man class might not immediately blow people away, especially with the focus likely on Jamison Battle and a handful of transfers, it should allow Johnson to lay the foundation for future success. Johnson was forced to largely rely on players that transferred in last year towards the end of their collegiate eligibility. That experience allowed Minnesota to be more competitive, but it limited the ability for Minnesota to grow as most of those guys are all gone. Now Minnesota will look to build from within heading forward.
4. Points of Optimism
It can’t get any worse than last year. The Gophers kept things interesting and competitive on most nights, but a rotation that sometimes was as few as six players lacked the depth to play a full 40 most nights. Now the Gophers have to essentially reboot their team for the second season in a row.
The one bright spot last year was the emergence of Jamison Battle, who was one of the best forwards in the conference last season. He returns for his junior season alongside transfer Dawson Garcia, a Minnesota native that has spent the past two years starting for both Marquette and North Carolina. Battle and Garcia alone bring more talent into the mix then what Minnesota had last year, while a pair of transfer guards bring some much needed experience to the backcourt. A five man recruiting class provides a foundation for Minnesota to build from, so even if the Gophers struggle again this year they should have a roster that will remain more intact heading into next season.
5. Points of Concern
The lack of experience cannot be understated, even if Minnesota has some intriguing pieces. Their five commit recruiting class could be a solid foundation, but no one screams as an immediate contributor and will likely need some time to develop. The biggest addition this season is Dawson Garcia, who immediately joins Battle as the second best player on the roster. That being said this is Garcia’s third team in three seasons, with the forward starting at both schools he previously played for. Will he transfer out again if things don’t immediately pan out?
New coaches have a tendency to rely on transfers and while Johnson is trying to also build the team by recruiting freshmen and homegrown talent from the state of Minnesota, there is still some pretty clear reliance on using the transfer market to fill out the rotation. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it does not. Look no further then Nebraska head coach Fred Hoiberg, who has been heavily involved in the transfer market and still has a team with little to no identity that has remained in the Big Ten cellar.
Johnson clearly knows he needs to develop his players and recruiting is of the utmost importance, but will his freshman class be capable of competing in the Big Ten this year? The reality is the Gophers are likely a year away from trending upwards in the conference unless one (or two) of the freshmen surprise the league this winter.
6. Top Player
You can make the argument for Dawson Garcia as a potential breakout player for the Gophers as he had success at two other prominent programs before returning home to Minnesota. But until we see how he fares in Johnson’s system it’s easier to go with Jamison Battle.
Battle was one of the top forwards in the Big Ten last year as a sophomore and one of the few bright spots for the Gophers in a dreadful season. The 6’7” forward averaged 17.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game while also hitting 36.6% from three. On a team that was poor at best on the offensive side of the ball, Battle is a consistent scoring option that Johnson can build around. With a roster that will likely have more talent this year, that will likely pave the way for Battle to have an even better season in his second year with the Gophers.
7. 2022-’23 Schedule Breakdown
- 11/2 - St. Olaf (Exhibition)
- 11/7 - Western Michigan
- 11/11 - St. Francis Brooklyn
- 11/14 - DePaul (Gavitt Games)
- 11/17 - Central Michigan
- 11/21 - California Baptist (San Juan Capistrano - SoCal Challenge)
- 11/23 - Southern Illinois or UNLV (San Juan Capistrano - SoCal Challenge)
- 11/28 - at Virginia Tech (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
- 12/4 - at Purdue
- 12/8 - Michigan
- 12/11 - Mississippi State
- 12/14 - Arkansas - Pine Bluff
- 12/22 - Chicago State
- 12/29 - Alcorn State
- 1/3 - at Wisconsin
- 1/7 - Nebraska
- 1/12 - at Ohio State
- 1/16 - Illinois
- 1/19 - Purdue
- 1/22 - at Michigan
- 1/25 - Indiana
- 1/28 - at Northwestern
- 2/1 - at Rutgers
- 2/4 - Maryland
- 2/7 - at Illinois
- 2/12 - Iowa
- 2/15 - at Michigan State
- 2/18 - Penn State
- 2/22 - at Maryland
- 2/25 - at Nebraska
- 3/2 - Rutgers
- 3/5 - Wisconsin
Just like last season Minnesota has an early stretch that should give them an opportunity to pick up plenty of wins. Of course that’s largely because they have a relatively weak non-conference slate full of cupcakes to pad out their resume. Even some of the more “notable” non-conference games are lacking, with Minnesota hosting DePaul in the Gavitt Games, facing California Baptist and either Southern Illinois or UNLV in the SoCal Challenge, and hosting Mississippi State in the middle of December. The only non-conference game of note is a road trip to Virginia Tech as part of the ACC / Big Ten Challenge.
The trip down to Virginia kickstarts a rough December stretch that also includes a road trip to Purdue and home games against Michigan and Mississippi State. That four game stretch will likely be the only part of the first two months that give much of an indication for what to expect over the course of conference play.
Minnesota didn’t exactly draw a favorable schedule in January, either. In their first seven games the Gophers travel to Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan while also hosting Illinois, Purdue and Indiana. The seven game stretch includes only one game Minnesota should be favored to win, with the Gophers hosting Nebraska early in January. Considering their two games in December, it’s not unrealistic to expect Minnesota to start off 1-8 in conference play.
Naturally once the difficult start to conference play finally breaks the Gophers then get to deal with playing six of their next nine games on the road before closing the season out at home against Rutgers and Wisconsin. For a Minnesota team that lacks experience and is in the middle of a rebuild, the schedule does them little to no favors heading down the stretch and there’s a decent possibility we see a similar hot start to the season turn into an absolutely dreadful close over the last three months of the season.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
- G: Ta’Lon Cooper
- G: Braeden Carrinton
- F: Jamison Battle
- F: Dawson Garcia
- C: Treyton Thompson / Pharrel Payne
The projected starting lineup for Minnesota is a bit up in the air depending on how Johnson wants to construct his rotations this year.
The obvious picks for the starting lineup include Ta’Lon Cooper, Jamison Battle and Dawson Garcia. Cooper is an experienced starter from Morehead State that was in the top ten for assists per game last season, likely position himself as the opening day starting point guard for the Gophers. Battle will once again start for Minnesota, while transfer Dawson Garcia should have a starting spot locked up as well. Garcia measures in at 6’11”, so he could essentially be utilized as a big even if he’s not a center.
That’s important as Parker Fox tore his ACL this summer and 6’10” forward Isaiah Ihnen will miss a second season in a row after suffering a knee injury. Treyton Thompson was a three star recruit that played limited minutes last year and is the only experienced center on the roster. Johnson is high on forward Pharrel Payne, who could also see minutes at the five even though he may have an uphill battle as a true freshman.
That leaves a spot in the backcourt open with Johnson having several options to fill it out. The most obvious choice would Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball Braeden Carrington, the Gophers best recruit from the 2022 recruiting class. If Carrington has any competition for a starting spot it will likely come from Dartmouth transfer Taurus Samuels, though his lukewarm shooting (36.5% field goal, 31.3% three point) don’t exactly impress.
Past that the rest of the roster is mainly a mix of freshman guards and forwards that will look to crack the rotation. Johnson has shown he’s not afraid to run a thin rotation, though it would be best if he deals with the growing pains and extends the 6-7 man rotation to at least a few more players this year.
9. Realistic Team Goals
There’s not many, if any, people calling for Minnesota to make a run to the NCAA Tournament this season. Of course fans would like to see the Gophers surprise everyone, and there’s some talented players on the roster, but the lack of experience and reliance on a large freshmen class will likely slow progress heading forward.
While the Gophers won’t immediate compete at the upper level of the conference, that freshman class should allow Minnesota to build a solid foundation and possibly make some splashes as early as next year. With Battle and Garcia, the Gophers two best players, set to still have eligibility next year, this team could be primed for a breakout in Johnson’s third year.
As for this season, look for Minnesota to focus on developing their younger players. That might require Johnson to open up his rotation a bit this year, and deal with the inevitable growing pains coming from playing freshmen, but it would best position Minnesota heading forward. If the Gophers can develop their young guys, remain competitive throughout the winter and land a few upsets it should be an acceptable season.
10. Overall Season Outlook
This Minnesota team should probably be better than last season. That being said, unless their 2022 recruiting class can make an immediate splash the Gophers improvement will likely be minimal at best. The reality is the pieces at hand will likely take some time to grow and a lot of this season will likely be about building towards the future now that Johnson has his first full recruiting class on campus.
Could Minnesota possibly trend towards the middle of the conference race if their freshmen hit the ground running? It’s possible, but a more grounded perspective will see Minnesota making some strides but still a year away from contending for a possible postseason appearance.