Gophers men show better than last-place projections in 6-0 start

·4 min read

On a mid-October evening at Williams Arena, Ben Johnson stood before a couple hundred Gophers men's basketball fans at practice, feeling confident one prediction about his team was wrong.

"We're not going to finish last in the Big Ten," the coach told boosters at the season tip-off event.

With 10 newcomers, the Gophers were a consensus choice to finish 14th in the Big Ten, behind perennial bottom feeders Northwestern, Penn State and Nebraska.

How many games, realistically, did that mean the Gophers would win this season? Typically, last-place teams in major conferences can finish with 10 or fewer victories.

So an undefeated 6-0 record for Johnson's Gophers entering Sunday's big matchup at Mississippi State makes the first-year coach arguably the Big Ten's biggest surprise and feel-good story.

"It doesn't matter what everybody else says," said Big Ten Network analyst Jess Settles, who broadcasted the Gophers' win against Jacksonville. "They wear the uniform with pride.

"He doesn't have a very deep bench like so many coaches and programs with the transfer portal. Everybody moving around was very difficult to put a team together, but I love what he's done so far."

Critics question how good the Gophers really are because of their soft schedule, ranked 276th in the country, according to ESPN.com. The combined records of Minnesota's opponents entering the weekend was below. 500, including lone power conference foe Pittsburgh's 2-5 mark.

The Gophers have a seven-man rotation, including five starters playing at least 28 minutes a game. Their bench is one of the shortest in the country, but Sean Sutherlin has been a double-digit scoring sixth man.

Their lack of size and depth in the frontcourt makes rebounding very difficult, but they've managed to hold their own on the glass, with no board bigger than guard Luke Loewe's game-winning put-back in Tuesday's 54-53 win at Pittsburgh.

As an improved three-point shooting team this season, the Gophers spread the ball around to find open jump shots or driving lanes for a perimeter-heavy offense led by leading scorers Payton Willis, Jamison Battle and E.J. Stephens.

"I love the spacing they've played with early in the season," Settles said. "Jamison Battle has been one of the better players in the league. You knew he could fill it up. You knew about his midrange game, but the coaching staff has been thrilled with his effort on the defensive end."

Not scoring a ton of points hasn't kept the Gophers from winning because they have a defense-first approach. Their specialty is defending the three-point shot; their 21.2% opponent three-point percentage leads the nation.

But different players have come through on both ends to close games. That has become as much part of their identity as anything — and it has drawn attention nationally.

"I've seen some things on Twitter from fans and media people saying they're surprised and love what Coach Johnson is doing with the program and the culture he's setting," Stephens said. "I wasn't here last year, but people see a big difference from last year's team to this year's team in terms of defense, defensive rotations, and ball movement.

"It's good to see, but at the same time that's what we expected."

The Gophers' undefeated start could easily include two or three losses, though. The Gophers beat Western Kentucky, Princeton and Pittsburgh by a combined 12 points. Fans were bracing for Johnson's first loss Tuesday at lowly Pitt until Loewe's heroics with 2.4 seconds left.

"I give a ton of credit to everyone out there," Loewe said. "All the coaches. Guys on the bench and the guys who play. The managers. Everybody contributes. I think just our togetherness and toughness have been huge for us, especially on the road."

The biggest question, though, is how long can the Gophers keep this up? Mississippi State is the first of three straight NCAA tournament-caliber opponents, including Wednesday's Big Ten opener vs. Michigan State at the Barn.

The breaks have gone the Gophers' way so far, but when adversity hits — and Johnson knows it will sooner rather than later — he hopes they continue to show toughness and compete. They haven't set a specific goal for this season but don't want to finish last.

"We honestly really haven't talked about expectations," Johnson said. "We know where people picked us, and we're fine with that. We get it. I get it. Our biggest thing is get better every day and learn to compete every day. If you do that and worry about the now, the process takes care of itself."

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