Scoggins: Johnson has Gophers competing like crazy, and a culture is taking root

Star Tribune/TNS
·4 min read

The Gophers men's basketball team had no business winning a game Saturday. Too many starters sidelined, not enough healthy bodies. No chance. None.

Shhh!

Don't tell that to Ben's Bulldogs.

"It's important for our guys to know that we don't duck anybody," coach Ben Johnson said.

Ben's Bulldogs don't duck. They fight. They scrap. They make up for limitations in size, depth and talent with an abundance of heart and hustle.

Only seven scholarship players available? Cool. Three of their top four scorers sidelined by injury, illness or COVID? No sweat. Play a rugged Rutgers team basically with only five players? Dig a little deeper.

"We need to have the personality of being the baddest dudes on the block," Johnson said.

His depleted roster displayed that persona in pulling off an improbable 68-65 win at the Barn on a day that began with bad news.

Johnson learned early Saturday that he would be without three starters, including leading scorer Jamison Battle. Another starter, Luke Loewe, felt under the weather but managed to play. The Gophers had a quick walkthrough to make last-second adjustments, then took the court for warmups.

The Gophers held a lead for nearly 27 minutes of game action. They were the better team.

"I told them that we're not going to use anything as an excuse," Johnson said.

Johnson is building something real at a program that has been dormant far too long. Forget the final score Saturday and whatever their final record turns out to be this season. Focus solely on the product on the floor, the way Johnson's team plays. Signs are everywhere that AD Mark Coyle found the right coach to lead this program.

The Gophers compete like crazy, regardless of the situation. That's a sign of a strong culture taking root. The Gophers won't have an edge in talent against many opponents, but how they play is more important in establishing a foundation for what's to come next.

Win or lose, the Gophers look like a well-coached team that is prepared and has a plan.

They run an offense predicated on passing and movement and unselfishness. Refreshing, isn't it? No more watching bad-shooting Gophers teams jack up three-pointers aimlessly or a point guard dribbling the air out of the ball.

Johnson disrupted Rutgers' offense in the first half by switching defenses, alternating between man and zone. He controlled the pace on offense to prevent his starters from running out of steam.

All five starters played at least 36½ minutes, including Loewe, who was sick, and freshman center Treyton Thompson, who played all 40 minutes after playing only 28 minutes total this season.

And they defeated a good team.

That's coaching, folks.

"We're going to always be in attack mode," Johnson said. "I want a mentality flip of who we are and who we think we are."

The Gophers are an entertaining team because of that identity-shaping togetherness.

Johnson walked into a tough job as a first-time head coach. He had to replace the entire roster in one offseason. Not just a few players. Wholesale changes. And COVID is still causing major disruptions.

Johnson doesn't make excuses. He's a positive person, a trait that pours out of him whenever he talks about his players. He builds them up, gives them confidence.

Senior point guard Payton Willis wore Superman's cape against Rutgers with one big shot after another, until making a turnover with 21 seconds left. Johnson took full blame for that afterward, saying he should have delivered clearer instruction in the timeout huddle.

Asked about getting his first Big Ten home win as head coach, Johnson again shifted the focus to his players.

"It's more satisfying because I believe in these guys so much," he said. "You want them to have the same belief in themselves that I have in them."

His words didn't come across as empty platitudes. They were real, genuine, which is why he relates so well to his players, a quality that will make him an effective recruiter.

That's the next (big) step in the process, bringing in better talent. Coyle hired Johnson with that directive: Recruit the heck of Minnesota and keep elite talent from this basketball hotbed from going elsewhere.

Moments such as Saturday will help his sales pitch.

The Gophers had every excuse imaginable to not win that game. But they won anyway.

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