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There’s plenty of newness as Ben Johnson starts U summer practice

Whitacre leads Frankfort past Berkeley Springs, 8-2

This won’t be the first Gophers summer basketball practice for new head coach Ben Johnson, a former player himself and a U assistant for five years before heading to Xavier in 2018.

Johnson knows this routine well. He doesn’t know his players, though. And they don’t know him yet, either. When they arrived last week, Minnesota’s players met the coaches in person for the first time.

“That was probably the weirdest part, that none of these guys had even seen campus,” Johnson said. “All these guys are moving in sight unseen.”

The new-look Gophers and their new coaches have eight weeks to build chemistry and figure out how to make so many new pieces fit together. Nine of the U’s 10 scholarship players are newcomers, the most for the program since the 2004-05 season.

“It’s unique and it’s different,” Johnson said. “But the type of kids we recruited will make the adjustment a lot easier.”

Here are five story lines for Johnson’s Gophers going into summer practice:

Who runs the show?

For the past eight seasons the Gophers struggled with consistency, leading to Richard Pitino’s dismissal. One thing you could always count on, however: a ball-dominant point guard. Marcus Carr became an All-Big Ten performer in that role, but his departure means a critical job must be filled. Johnson won’t rely on one player to carry the offense like Carr did, but the Gophers still need a floor leader. The best candidates to fill that spot are seniors Payton Willis and Luke Loewe, who have played point guard throughout their careers. Loewe (3.2) and Willis (3.1) led William & Mary and Charleston, respectively, in assists last season.

No big men on campus

If you’re scratching your head looking at the Gophers’ opening summer practice roster with only one center, it’s not a misprint. Freshman Treyton Thompson is the only player at the position right now. At 6-11 and 190 pounds, he’s not ready physically to start in the middle in the Big Ten. Stephen F. Austin transfer Charlie Daniels isn’t joining the team until later this summer, but he isn’t expected to start, either. Johnson and his staff are still recruiting to fill that role; they’re targeting 7-foot North Carolina transfer Sterling Manley, who is expected to make a decision after a second pre-draft combine this week.

Establishing starting lineup

The Gophers are the only team in the Big Ten with no starters expected back. The lone returner is junior forward Isaiah Ihnen, who averaged 2.8 points last season. Summer practice begins with mostly individual workouts, but eventually Johnson will need to find his best five. Willis, Loewe and senior guard E.J. Stephens are the U’s most experienced players, but the most talented could be sophomore forward Jamison Battle. He was named All-Atlantic 10 third team after averaging 17 points and five rebounds at George Washington. Can the 6-7, 225-pound Battle be an undersized power forward? Maybe. Still, the starting frontcourt is definitely the biggest question mark.

Minnesota connections

Johnson, a former Gophers player and assistant, is passionate about being a “Minnesota guy” and the head coach of his home state program. He also surrounded himself with others like him. His top assistant, Dave Thorson, is a familiar name locally as DeLaSalle’s longtime successful coach and a former Gophers assistant. Battle (DeLaSalle), Thompson (Alexandria), Sean Sutherlin (Irondale), Parker Fox (Mahtomedi) and walk-on Jackson Purcell (Eastview) are all Minnesota guys as well. The Gophers might not be done adding local products, with Shakopee native and Boston College transfer Steffon Mitchell strongly considering the U.

Getting healthy

Fox, who could miss the 2021-22 season, is the only player sidelined completely from summer practice while recovering from a torn ACL and meniscus in his left knee. Sutherlin will be limited to no contact in drills to start practice. The 6-5 senior is taking it slow after missing last season at New Hampshire because of a torn labrum.

About the author

Christine Watkins

Christine founded Sports Grind Entertainment with an aim to bring relevant and unaltered Sports news to the general public with a specific view point for each story catered by the team. She is a proficient journalist who holds a reputable portfolio with proficiency in content analysis and research.

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