Gophers face gantlet of talented big men with a depleted frontcourt

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·5 min read
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  • Hunter Dickinson
    American basketball player
  • Kofi Cockburn
    Jamaican basketball player

Ben Johnson remembers the Big Ten being a big man's league from his playing days in the early 2000s, so he's not surprised the conference continues to churn out frontcourt talent.

But Johnson rejoined the Big Ten in a time when the conference's big men are as dominant as ever — and the Gophers are overmatched inside most nights in his first season. Their lack of depth in the paint was a result of transfer portal misses, losses and key injuries.

"That was no secret," said Johnson before the Gophers traveled to play Sunday at Indiana. "I knew that coming into this whole deal. Does that mean you can't be successful? No."

Kofi Cockburn, a 7-foot, 285-pound hulk, overwhelmed the Gophers with 29 points, 10 rebounds, and four blocks in Illinois' 76-53 victory Tuesday at Williams Arena.

And the frontcourt challenges keep coming. Up next is another dominating inside presence with Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis, who had 27 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks in a 67-51 upset against No. 13 Ohio State on Thursday.

"He's just always in attack mode," Johnson said. "When you watch him on film, you just see a dynamic, powerful athlete that is really confident."

Bigs league

When former Iowa star and NCAA Player of the Year Luka Garza graduated, it left the throne open for top big man honors in the Big Ten. There are candidates aplenty. Six of them are among the nine Big Ten players recently announced on the Wooden Award top 25 watch list.

Cockburn, Jackson-Davis, Ohio State's E.J. Liddell, Purdue's Trevion Williams, and Michigan's Hunter Dickinson returned to school after flirting with the NBA draft. And now Big Ten opponents have to pay the price.

The Gophers have already seen Cockburn and Dickinson, who had 19 points in Minnesota's 75-65 victory at Michigan.

They fared better in the second half against Dickinson, who was held to five points while settling for jumpers. Cockburn bullied the Gophers near the basket with 17 points in the second half Tuesday.

The Gophers know they will need a better game plan against a dominant post presence than just double-teams. They face Jackson-Davis twice and Liddell twice in the regular season. They won't play Cockburn or Dickinson again. And Purdue's 7-4 man mountain Zach Edey and Williams play the Gophers only once as well.

The Gophers are led by 6-7 sophomore Jamison Battle, who is averaging 18 points and six rebounds, but he is playing out of position at power forward. His three-point shooting pulls bigger bodies outside.

"It is an advantage," Battle said. "But defending is different. Obviously going against bigger guys, I really didn't do that in the [Atlantic 10 at George Washington]. There were some big guys, but now in the Big Ten it's going to get difficult. But I got guys around me who can support me."

Curry, who slid over from a graduate assistant role, has made a remarkable comeback from three major injuries to average a career-best 8.3 points and 6.7 rebounds in 27.4 minutes.

"I knew what Ben was going to ask me to do," Curry said. "I was coming in overweight because I thought I was done playing basketball. I just grinded in the offseason preparing for moments like this."

Missing pieces

Two of the 10 Gophers players to hit the transfer portal in the spring were centers Liam Robbins and Sam Freeman, who ended up at Vanderbilt and Pacific, respectively.

Robbins, a 7-footer who won two Big Ten player of the week awards last January, hasn't played this season because of a foot injury. The 6-10 Freeman is averaging 5.1 points and 3.3 rebounds.

The biggest blows to the frontcourt came when 6-8 forwards Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen both suffered major knee injuries that required offseason surgery. Fox appears nearly fully recovered, but the Gophers are expecting him to redshirt.

The only other post backup for the Gophers is Stephen F. Austin transfer Charlie Daniels, who has averaged just 11 minutes a game.

Size matters in the Big Ten. And the Gophers don't have it. Their tallest player is 7-foot Treyton Thompson from Glenwood, Minn., but Johnson doesn't think he is physically ready to bang with the big boys. The freshman has played just six games, averaging 2.9 minutes.

Among several misses for Johnson in the portal with centers was 7-footer Michael Durr, who transferred from Indiana to South Florida. But the toughest one lost was North Carolina 7-foot transfer Sterling Manley, who eventually went undrafted before receiving his first pro contract on Jan. 1 to play in China.

The Gophers are already fantasizing about next season with 6-9 four-star Park of Cottage Grove recruit Pharrel Payne, who made his season debut Friday coming off a hip injury.

But Johnson has to figure out how to battle inside now in a loaded Big Ten long before help arrives.

"In the process of growing this program, you're going to take bumps in the road," he said. "But you've got to grow from those. I think we will. Each game these guys play in this league, it is a new experience."

Ranking the Big Ten's top big men

1. Kofi Cockburn 7-0 Junior Illinois

2. Trayce Jackson-Davis 6-9 Junior Indiana

3. E.J. Liddell 6-7 Junior Ohio State

4. Zach Edey 7-4 sophomore Purdue

5. Trevion Williams 6-10 senior Purdue

6. Hunter Dickinson 7-1 sophomore Michigan

7. Marcus Bingham 7-0 senior Michigan State

8. Qudus Wahab 6-11 junior Maryland

9. Pete Nance 6-10 senior Northwestern

10. Cliff Omoruyi 6-11 sophomore Rutgers

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