To prepare for Big Ten’s big men, Gophers’ Payne turned to big brother

Not many Big Ten freshmen would be able to hold their own physically against the gantlet of big men Pharrel Payne is facing in three straight Gophers basketball games.

After battling Purdue's 7-4 Zach Edey and Michigan's 7-1 Hunter Dickinson, Payne will meet Indiana's 6-9 Trayce Jackson-Davis on Wednesday night at Williams Arena.

Not only is Payne built for the challenge at 6-9 and 255 pounds, but he also is used to exchanging blows in the paint with his older brother, Rodrick, growing up in Cottage Grove.

Now that Rodrick is turning into a top Division III big man at Wisconsin-River Falls, Payne has someone to lean on who has been through the process before him.

"It means a lot because he basically told me what it was going to be like," Payne said. "He told me how to get ready for it."

The Gophers (7-11, 1-7 Big Ten) have brought Payne off the bench this season with North Carolina transfer Dawson Garcia leading the team, but it might be the right time for his opportunity to expand.

Garcia suffered an ankle injury late in Sunday's 60-56 loss at Michigan. His status for Wednesday's game against the Hoosiers is uncertain, but Payne's inside presence could be critical regardless.

"He's only getting better," Johnson said. "It's tough to have teaching moments through losses, but I can see his development, especially on the defensive end. It's going to be a bright spot for our program."

Payne got brotherly advice about how tough college training would be as a freshman and "how you still have to show up every day and be consistent with it," he said.

A former Park of Cottage Grove star, Payne has added 20 pounds to a frame that was already Big Ten-ready when he arrived on campus. Workouts back home were grueling, Payne banging against his 6-8, 240-pound brother who was named Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year in 2021-22.

"It benefitted me a lot because he's basically a brick wall," Payne said. "If I could figure out how to score on him, you have a better chance of figuring out how to compete with the bigger guys."

Entering college, Payne had a goal of starting for the Gophers, so he had some difficulty adjusting to coming off the bench. Joshua Ola-Joseph has been a Gophers starter in Big Ten play, but fellow freshmen Braeden Carrington (now out with a leg injury), Jaden Henley and Payne had to figure out how to make an impact in reserve roles.

Payne, who has scored 15 points in a game twice this season, played just 24 minutes combined in the last two nonconference games. Now he's seen at least 20 minutes in six straight games and produced seven points and five rebounds in 31 minutes Sunday at Michigan.

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"One of the things I picked up is I have to take my time inside," Payne said. "It was different in high school. People are a bit smaller where you can just get the ball and go up."

Rodrick Payne is having a breakout sophomore season at River Falls, averaging 16.8 points and 6.2 rebounds, including a career-high 30 points last Wednesday vs. Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Rodrick didn't play varsity basketball at East Ridge until his senior year. Pharrel, averaging 7.2 points, 4.7 rebounds and a team-high 1.1 blocks and 21 dunks this season, was a late bloomer in high school, too. Older brother expects younger brother to continue to improve.

"After my freshman year I realized I was capable of doing a lot more," Rodrick Payne said. "I'm proud that he was able to make it at the Division I level. Being in the rotation and gradually getting more minutes throughout the season is good to see."