Newcomers show U coach connectivity, chemistry in first practice

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Ben Johnson uses the hashtag #c2f when he tweets about his Gophers men's basketball program. It stands for "Committed 2 Family," part of the culture he wants to establish as a first-year head coach.

"One of the things I want our program to be built on and be about is family," Johnson said.

Trying to build a family atmosphere with an almost entirely new roster doesn't happen overnight.

The Gophers, who finished 14-15 in Richard Pitino's last season, have 10 newcomers, the most for the program since 2004-05. But there was a sense of connectivity during Johnson's first practice Tuesday.

These new faces are closer than their lack of playing experience together would indicate.

"They come from all different programs and different backgrounds," Johnson said. "But their personalities all mesh. That was something in recruiting we really tried to hone in on. We knew if we were going to go the transfer route, you got to make sure you get like-minded guys for it to work."

Seniors Payton Willis and Eric Curry, the only two healthy players with Big Ten games under their belt, modeled the defensive intensity in Tuesday's practice that Johnson and his assistants have been preaching.

After battling injuries throughout his career, the 6-9 Curry is being held out of some team drills during practice, but his presence has helped freshman post Treyton Thompson develop.

Willis, who started for Pitino during the 2019-20 season before transferring to the College of Charleston and eventually transferring back, actively pressured the ball in drills Tuesday. His effort was contagious with freshman Abdoulaye Thiam, who played well for the Maroon team during the scrimmage session.

One highlight had Thiam stealing a pass at the top of the key and racing down the floor to finish on the other end with a layup plus the foul.

In the other backcourt, seniors Sean Sutherlin and Luke Loewe led the Gold team to a defensive stop and score late in the scrimmage. A drive and kick-out play ended with Loewe's three-pointer from the corner as the shot clock expired.

Some of that much-needed chemistry with the new Gophers under Johnson was on display.

"If you don't like guys, it's hard to have that relationship on the court where it matters," he said. "I think that family, that connectiveness, that togetherness goes hand in hand. If it's good off the court, it's probably going to be good on the court."

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