Gophers second-year men’s basketball coach Ben Johnson assembled a practice roster last month that included Jamison Battle, Dawson Garcia and Braeden Carrington in what could easily have been three of his starters from the opening night.
Next, Battle needed foot surgery. Garcia and Carrington were sidelined with muscle strains and sprained ankles this week, respectively.
Suddenly, Johnson wondered if three potential starters would be healthy for the Nov. 7 opener against Western Michigan. They were out for good in the U’s only exhibition game on Wednesday against St. Olaf.
It made for an offseason of excitement over a talented new team turned into Gophers fans worried they could come from behind to beat a veteran-led Division III opponent 71-55 at Williams Arena.
The Gophers, who trailed by seven points in the first half, will have to rely on youth this season.
One bright spot in a tough first outing on Wednesday night was the freshman trio of Joshua Ola-Joseph, Pharrel Payne and Jaden Henley combining for 37 points. Newcomer Ta’Lon Cooper also collected all of his 13 points in the second half.
Johnson has already ruled out his leading return scorer for next Monday’s season opener with his status week after week. Garcia and Carrington are day to day with their recovery schedule.
A 6-11 transfer to North Carolina, Garcia was the prime candidate to be the U’s leading scorer until Battle returned healthy. The Prior Lake product was in street clothes on Wednesday, perhaps as a precaution.
Carrington wearing a walking boot to protect his ankle looked more serious. The Minnesota Mr. Basketball winner and Park Center State champion was the hottest in the U’s class of talented freshmen and competed for a starting role.
But Ola-Joseph proved to be the best freshman and fielder for the Gophers on Wednesday with 12 points off his record 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting in the first half, including one for three. points. The former Osseo and AZ Compass Prep striker came off the bench to provide a much-needed attacking spark.
The Oles, who were coached by former Gophers assistant Dave “Koz” Kosmoski, went from being in control for most of the first half to trailing 54-42 after rookie Pharrel Payne muscled in a lay-up plus the foul with 11:13 to play.
At 6-foot-7 and 215 pounds, Ola-Joseph was nearly the same height as St. Olaf’s big men. So Payne surely looked like a man among the boys at 6-9 and 255 pounds. Their physicality, along with Cooper’s three straight points, changed the momentum in the second half.
But the first sign of how the Gophers were perhaps trying not to reveal too much in this glorified scrimmage was that the players faced off in their practice jerseys.
The U’s starting lineup was also interesting. Cooper is expected to be the point guard replacing graduating captain Payton Willis this season. But the Morehead State transfer was joined to open the game by former extra Will Ramberg, who got a scholarship this fall.
Rounding out the top five were Henley and Payne and second Treyton Thompson, which was no surprise considering they were likely going to be in the rotation this year.
What was noticeably lacking when the Gophers trailed by as much as seven points early on was experience on the field.
Five of the first eight Gophers players who saw the field in the first half were either freshmen or sophomores. Very different compared to the seven St. Olaf juniors or seniors who were able to match their Big Ten foe for most of the night.
The amount of experience will become a factor even when Garcia and Battle are both healthy could determine how competitive the Gophers can be once the real games begin.
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