Dan Monson inherited arguably the greatest rebuilding job in men’s basketball history from the Gophers when he took over following the team’s varsity fraud scandal in 1999.
It was two years before a Northwestern guard named Ben Johnson transferred to the Gophers program.
Now, two decades later, Johnson has returned to his alma mater as head coach, facing the most difficult rebuild since Monson’s arrival.
The Johnson era begins Tuesday against Missouri-Kansas City with unanimous Big Ten projections in last place for the Gophers, who have seen the biggest lineup overhaul in a year with 10 newcomer scholarship holders.
“We knew it was going to be like this,” said Johnson, whose only survivor capable of playing is sixth-year Eric Curry after junior Isaiah Ihnen’s knee injury ended the season.
As if being a head coach for the first time and the youngest in the Big Ten weren’t tough enough, Johnson, 40, once again welcomes the third under minutes back among the 358 Division I teams.
According to barttorvik.com, only Tennessee Martin’s newest roster and Georgia at 7.2% have less than Minnesota’s 7.9% minutes return.
“I know he’s a great young man and everyone is shooting for him,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said of Johnson. “But I’m not sure his level of talent is sufficient for his first year.”
The Gophers are not favored in any Big Ten game this season, according to KenPom.com. They are the only Big Ten team outside of the top 100 in KenPom’s preseason rankings, and ahead of only Pittsburgh (145th), Boston College (146th) and Georgia (159) among the lowest rated in major conferences.
The last Gophers team to finish worse in the Big Ten was tied with Northwestern at 2-16 in Clem Haskins’ first year in 1986-87. Even Haskins, who lost 21 in a row in the Big Ten before going to Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, only had as many newcomers as Johnson in the first year.
“I don’t care where we rank,” Johnson said. “I don’t care what people say. I know it won’t be easy.”
“Exceeded most nights”
Some of the biggest reconstructions of the Big Ten in the past 10+ years have shed light on how long a turnaround could take for Johnson and the Gophers.
Fred Hoiberg inherited a team shell when he took over Nebraska two years ago, a massive start like the Big Ten hadn’t seen since Tom Crean had 13 scholarships open to start at Indiana in 2008-09.
The Hoiberg Cornhuskers’ first roster in 2019-20 had just two returning players, but only Thorir Thorbjarnarson played the previous year, averaging just 2.0 points and 1.0 rebounding.
“We had to complete 11 scholarships in 34 days,” Hoiberg said. “The most important thing was to try to get us to go out and compete. We were understaffed most nights.”
The Huskers, who were 7-25 and 2-18 in the Big Ten in Hoiberg’s first year.
Hoiberg again added 11 newcomers last season, finishing last in the Big Ten for the second year. But he saw some growth towards the end of the year, most notably in a win over the Pitino Gophers.
“We knew we were going to take our pieces,” said Hoiberg, who signed a top 20 recruiting class. “But I wanted to establish a style of play that would give us long term success.”
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In 2017, Northwestern reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in team history, becoming the last major conference team to do so. It was four years after Chris Collins was rebuilt.
Collins spoke to Johnson this summer about being a young head coach for the first time in the Big Ten, telling him to “attack recruiting” and focus primarily on improving his young players.
“For us, the strategy was to invest in player development,” said Collins. “It was a three year window for us to bring guys in and throw them on the fire, understand there was growing pains with that.”
Long before the massive exodus of players, the Gophers were ranked 16th last season, but injuries resulted in a late collapse as they lost 11 of their last 14 games and missed the NCAA tournament.
Richard Pitino was fired on March 15 after finishing 14-15 in his eighth season. A week later, the Gophers hired Johnson, an assistant to Xavier who was unaware that most Pitino players were already thinking about a transfer.
Instead of inheriting the core of a former Top 25 team, Johnson lost nine players on the transfer portal in his first month on the job. Neither of them blamed Johnson.
“If they wanted to be here and were willing to buy into what we were doing, I wanted the guys to stay,” Johnson said. “There were certain situations that you knew were probably not going to happen.”
Six of the deceased players transferred to major programs, including All-Big Ten goalie Marcus Carr (Texas) and Big Ten blocks leader Liam Robbins (Vanderbilt). Gabe Kalscheur played DeLaSalle for new U assistant Dave Thorson and was recruited by Johnson in high school, but Kalscheur left for Iowa State.
“I encouraged him to do it if he needed that fresh start,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want him to have a bad experience here. I didn’t want him to stay for the wrong reasons.”
Johnson’s 10 newcomers (six seniors) have joined the Gophers with faith in his vision for building a foundation – and it takes time. However, they don’t give up on the success of the first year.
“I know our guys are excited,” said Luke Loewe, transfer from William and Mary. “Coach Johnson and the coaching staff are thrilled. I just can’t wait to go out there and show people what we are.”
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