Gophers’ Garcia seeing true potential in third college stop

The Dawson Garcia that local fans remember as a can't-miss, five-star talent at Prior Lake is surfacing again back home for the Gophers. But his growth was stalled playing for three different coaches and programs since high school.

There were setbacks earlier this season with the Gophers, too, such as learning to play with fellow standout Jamison Battle and a nasty flu bug that made Garcia lose 20 pounds.

The college basketball world really hadn't consistently seen his best — not until now.

"I'm getting more comfortable, and I don't expect it to stop at all," Garcia said after tying his career high with 28 points, to go with nine rebounds in Thursday's 70-67 victory at Ohio State. "I'm just going to keep pushing forward every day."

In the Big Ten, the versatile 6-11, 230-pound Garcia is a matchup nightmare for most opposing big men who dislike defending out to the three-point line. But he also had to embrace the physicality of being the Gophers' main option inside, a different role than he had previously at Marquette and North Carolina.

"He's like the quarterback who has had three offensive coordinators in three years," Gophers coach Ben Johnson said. "Every spot he's had a different responsibility."

The Gophers (7-8, 1-4 Big Ten), who play host to Illinois on Monday, wouldn't have won their first conference game Thursday night without Garcia scoring 16 points in the second half — but also 12 straight in the first half to take control early against the Buckeyes.

"It feels good because we know this isn't a fluke," Garcia said. "We've been building and progressively getting better and better."

Playing well with Battle and gifted freshman Pharrel Payne, Garcia also seems to be getting closer to unleashing his full potential now in Johnson's system, averaging 18 points, eight rebounds and two assists in the past seven games.

"This is the first time he's got to carry the load in a new system with new players," Johnson added. "There's outside pressures that come with that with him coming home."

Then-Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski beat out Richard Pitino's Gophers for Garcia in the 2020 class, but the Golden Eagles ran their offense mostly through Ohio State transfer D.J. Carton before firing their coach. North Carolina's Hubert Davis landed Garcia in the transfer portal for last season but used him as a complementary piece to Armando Bacot before watching him leave to be with ailing family last January.

Coming home to play for the Gophers, Garcia didn't expect all eyes to be on him right away until Battle was sidelined for the first four games because of a foot injury. Garcia still had the best Gophers debut in 17 years with 23 points vs. Western Michigan. He has been in double figures in 13 of 15 games this season, but he was still figuring out how to lead a younger squad.

"I just had trust and open ears willing to learn," Garcia said. "I feel like we do that every day in practice. This is a new team, a younger team, but we've got guys who love basketball. On off days, everybody's in the gym [together]."

In losses at Purdue and Virginia Tech, Garcia played sick and combined for just 11 points and three rebounds, but his play has been trending upward since getting fully healthy.

The Savage native's biggest improvement has been in the post. His three-pointer is falling again (4-for-7 in the last two games), but he was just as focused on rebounding better. He has grabbed a combined 33 boards in the past three Big Ten games.

"Now you see a confident Dawson because his weight is back and he feels strong," Johnson said. "His work ethic never changed. His effort never changed. He's always been about the right stuff, so none of this surprised me. We just never knew when it was going to fully click."