Oct. 31—Minnesota men's basketball begins a singular season with an exhibition gane against Concordia St. Paul on Monday night. Few know what to expect when first-year coach Ben Johnson fields a virtually entirely new team for the 7 p.m. tip at Williams Arena.
Even Johnson, who recruited the team almost entirely through the transfer portal after being hired on March 22, doesn't know what his rotations will look like, or which players will work best with specific teammates.
But Johnson, a former Gophers player from Minneapolis, is sure of one thing.
"Every day, and our guys know this, every day of the week we are going to battle and compete," he said. "We want guys pushing for minutes and playing time, and we want to create the best team we can."
The Gophers are likely to start Payton Willis (College of Charleston) at point guard and Eylijah Stephens (Lafayette) as the off guard, plus Jamison Battle (George Washington), Charlie Daniels (Stephen F. Austin) and Eric Curry (Minnesota), all of whom played Division I basketball last season. All but Battle, a sophomore from Robbinsdale, are seniors.
Curry, a fifth-year senior, is the only member of the team who played for former coach Richard Pitino last season and therefore the only Gophers player with Big Ten experience.
"I always think about things in practice like we're playing a Big Ten team; that's where my judgment comes from," Curry said." So, any mistake I see, I'll be saying something like, 'That's not going to work against Illinois.' "
Concordia-St. Paul finished an abridged 2020-21 season 1-13 overall and 1-10 in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. Like any Division II team, the Golden Bears will be itching to make a statement against a Power 5 team, and they'll bring a roster featuring seven Minnesota players.
"It's going to be their Super Bowl, and it should be," Johnson said, "But for our guys, it's our biggest game right now. Our guys realize after going through the pandemic, or being hit by injuries, how precious every opportunity to compete is. I don't think I'm going to have to make a motivational speech just to get these guys to play hard. It's our Super Bowl, too."
Also expected to play major minutes is off guard Sean Sutherlin, a senior from New Brighton who sat out his final season at New Hampshire with a torn labrum in his hip. As a junior, he averaged 12.8 points and 9.3 rebounds, unusual for a 6-foot-4 guard. In fact, he led America East in defensive rebounding (7.6 per game) and double-doubles (12) in his last active season.
"I can rebound and push the break and find shooters," Sutherlin said. "So I'll play wherever (Johnson) needs me."
That skill will be important on a team missing two of its biggest players, forwards Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen, after offseason knee surgeries. They are the only players on the roster not available early, and that includes freshmen Absoulaye Thiam, a guard from Orlando, Fla., and Treyton Thompson, a 6-11 forward from Glenwood, Minn.
Johnson said it's also possible that Fox, a Division II all-American at Northern State from Mahtomedi, could play after the New Year because his rehab — he tore an anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his left knee — is going so well.
"I don't want guys to rush back; they need to come back for the right reasons," Johnson said. "But I want them to feel confident. He needs to meet with doctors and be medically cleared, and there's no reason to rush him back; we want him back for the long term. But he does look great."