Former Park Center standout Dainja coming into his own at Illinois

Ben Johnson and his Gophers men's basketball program showed some interest when former Park Center standout Dain Dainja entered the transfer portal two years ago.

Dainja played in three games at Baylor after redshirting on the 2021 national championship squad, but he eventually transferred to Illinois and sat out the rest of last season.

The Gophers focused more on recruiting Cottage Grove's Pharrel Payne for this freshmen class — and already started early on California 7-footer Dennis Evans III in the 2023 class.

But the 6-9, 270-pound Dainja eventually became the Illini's man in the middle this season. And he'll face his home state Gophers (7-16, 1-13 Big Ten) for a second time Monday in Champaign.

"We had talked to him briefly," Johnson said on Dainja earlier this season. "But with Pharrel coming and being in the mix, I didn't want to go down that route. You kind of want to make sure you have the right balance. And I thought they were more similar than different."

Two of the most physically imposing and athletically gifted young post players in the Big Ten, Dainja and Payne are beginning to tap into their potential with expanded roles.

Recently, the 6-9, 230-pound Payne started four games when the Gophers' leading scorer and rebounder Dawson Garcia was sidelined with a foot injury. Garcia returned to score 23 points in Saturday's 76-69 loss against Penn State, but Payne had a career-high 18 points, 10 rebounds and six assists off the bench.

"I'd say I built some confidence in the past few games," said Payne, who averages 7.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks. "I feel like it helps a ton because my coaches have my back in that [confidence] aspect. It makes it much easier to go out there and play."

Dainja, who is averaging 10.3 points and 5.9 rebounds, has been a starter the past 14 games. The Illini (17-9, 8-7) won eight out of 10 games during one stretch with Dainja starting. During a four-game win streak in January, Dainja finished with 20 points and seven rebounds in a win vs. Michigan State, and he had 11 points and four rebounds in a 78-60 win Jan. 16 against the Gophers at Williams Arena.

The Brooklyn Park native scored double figures in three of his last four games, including 32 points and 16 rebounds combined against Iowa and Rutgers earlier this month. Dainja's combination of power, agility, and length (7-7 wingspan) make him a difficult matchup.

The son of Dana Jackson, who played for the Gophers from 1990-93, Dainja challenged himself on the scout team against the Illini's 7-foot star Kofi Cockburn last year. So he wasn't intimidated by anyone when he got his chance to prove himself in a league loaded with quality frontcourt talent.

"The Big Ten has really good bigs but I felt like I did good with just studying everybody," Dainja told local reporters after his 15-point game Feb. 11 vs. Rutgers. "Taking little things I can learn. This is really my first season playing. But I definitely feel like I'm one of the best bigs in the Big Ten."

The Gophers didn't know what their frontcourt would look like this season when they were recruiting Dainja and Payne. Both players are developing into an inside presence for their respective teams.

"I was really excited about what Pharrel brings," Johnson said. "So, we really didn't go much into it [with Dainja]. Obviously, he's a really talented player. Super skilled. But for us we were really indebted into [Payne]. And also knowing we were recruiting Dennis and had a chance there, it just didn't make sense."