Men’s basketball: Gophers latest loss overshadowed by Dennis Evans’ exit
The Gophers men’s basketball team played three games this week, but the program lost four times.
Minnesota latest defeat on the court came Saturday, 78-67 to Nebraska, and extended the last-place Gophers’ losing streak to 12 games since Jan. 12.
The Gophers’ long, road-weary week will have more lasting reverberations because four-star center signee Dennis Evans III has backed out of his national letter of intent to Minnesota. Evans filed paperwork to be released from his NLI late this week, and it was approved by the Gophers on Saturday, according to two sources.
After giving his verbal commitment to Minnesota in October, Evans signed an NLI in November, but one of the best center prospects in the nation had second thoughts while observing the Gophers’ season. A source expressed one factor in the decision, saying it wasn’t about the amount of losing, but how there wasn’t enough of a big-picture focus on freshman players.
The Gophers foursome of freshman have each averaged 20 minutes per game. Ben Johnson has worked to coach them through their growing pains, while also blending the youngsters in with veteran presences, including Dartmouth transfer Taurus Samuels playing an average of 18 minutes and making 13 starts this season.
Gophers freshman guard Jaden Henley, a friend and former AAU teammate of Evans, made his 14th start across 26 games on Saturday; he began the season in the starting lineup in November and December, but came off the bench until returning to a starting role in February. Josh Ola-Joseph has made 19 starts and Pharrel Payne four, while Braeden Carrington only coming off the bench this season.
Evans decision to move on from Minnesota was characterized as very difficult to make, a source shared. The young man from Riverside, Calif., comes across as introverted and shy and he had a tough time breaking the news to Gophers coaches, especially his primary recruiter, assistant coach Marcus Jenkins.
A source emphasized that opportunities to earn income from Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) was not a driver in Evans changing course. If NIL opportunities were important to Evans, he wouldn’t have signed with Minnesota in November, the source said.
The Gophers’ NIL collective, Dinkytown Athletics, works with the athletic department’s compliance office and doesn’t offer NIL deals to players before they arrive on campus. Dinkytown Athletes had conversations and meetings with Evans’ representatives about NIL, the collective set aside a fund for NIL opportunities and there were contracts ready to offer Evans soon after he was expected to arrive on the U campus in June, a source told the Pioneer Press. The source said Evans’ camp were interested in the NIL opportunities available to Evans and the expose he might might receive.
Minnesota and Nebraska were tied for last place in the Big Ten a season ago with matching 4-16 records, but Saturday at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Neb., underscored how they have gone in different directions since then.
The Cornhuskers doubled last year’s conference win total at eight, with their fourth-straight victory, while Minnesota remained stuck on one conference win and are lonely in the basement of the standings.
The Gophers pushed Nebraska in an 81-79 overtime loss at Williams Arena on Jan. 7, and they cut a 14-point lead to six with seven minutes left on Saturday.
But Minnesota’s 19 turnovers was the biggest reason they couldn’t snap the six-week losing skid.
“We did a handful of good things, (but) turnovers, they crushed us,” Johnson said on the KFXN-FM postgame show. “When you out-rebound a team and force them to shoot 26 percent from 3 and (we) did an OK job guarding them in the half court. They shoot 66 (percent) from the line and we shoot 100. Then the next minute is a turnover and (it’s) those extra possessions that you lose.”
Jamison Battle and Pharrel Payne led Minnesota with 12 points apiece.
Henley added 11 points, with Johnson crediting the defensive effort Henley had on Keisei Tominaga, who ended with 11 points. “I thought Jaden did an unbelievable job on Tominaga,” Johnson said. “… For a freshman, he’s been on a tear lately.”
Carrington suffered a left leg injury with four minutes left in the game. He needed assistance getting to the bench and didn’t return.
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