On a mid-October evening at the Williams Arena, Ben Johnson stood in front of several hundred Gophers men’s basketball fans during practice, confident that one prediction about his team was wrong.
“We are not going to finish last in the Big Ten,” the coach told boosters during the season tip event.
With 10 newcomers, the Gophers were a consensus pick to finish 14th in the Big Ten, behind solid bottom feeders Northwestern, Penn State and Nebraska.
How many games did that realistically mean the Gophers would win this season? Typically, teams can finish in last place in major conferences with 10 or fewer wins.
So an undefeated 6-0 record for Johnson’s Gophers competing in the big game at Mississippi State on Sunday makes the freshman coach arguably the Big Ten’s biggest surprise and feel-good story.
“It doesn’t matter what anyone says,” said Big Ten Network analyst Jess Settles, who broadcast the Gophers’ victory against Jacksonville. “They wear the uniform with pride.
“He doesn’t have such a deep bench like so many coaches and programs with the transfer portal. Everyone who moved has been very difficult to put together a team, but I think it’s great what he’s done so far.”
Critics are questioning how good the Gophers really are due to their soft schedule, which is ranked 276th in the country according to ESPN.com. The combined records of Minnesota’s opponents coming in over the weekend were below. 500, including the lone power conference foe of Pittsburgh’s 2-5 mark.
The Gophers have a seven-man rotation, including five starters who play at least 28 minutes per game. Their couch is one of the shortest in the country, but Sean Sutherlin was a double-digit sixth man.
Their lack of size and depth in the frontcourt makes rebounding very difficult, but they managed to hold their own on the glass, with no board bigger than Luke Loewe’s game-winning fall in Tuesday’s 54-53 win in Pittsburgh .
As an improved three-point shooting team this season, the Gophers spread the ball around to find open jump shots or lanes for a heavy attack led by top scorers Payton Willis, Jamison Battle and EJ Stephens.
“I love the distance they played early in the season,” said Settles. “Jamison Battle was one of the better players in the league. You knew he could fill it up. You knew about his midrange game, but the coaching staff were enthusiastic about his effort on defense.”
Not scoring a ton of points hasn’t stopped the Gophers from winning because they have a defense-first approach. Their specialty is defending the three-point shot; their 21.2% opponent three-point percentage leads the nation.
But on both sides, several players have come through to close matches. That has become as much a part of their identity as anything else – and it has attracted national attention.
“I’ve seen some things on Twitter from fans and media people saying they’re surprised and love what Coach Johnson is doing with the program and the culture he’s portraying,” Stephens said. “I wasn’t here last year, but people see a big difference from last year’s team in terms of defense, defensive rotations and ball movements.
“It’s good to see, but at the same time we expected that.”
However, the Gophers’ undefeated start could easily include two or three losses. The Gophers defeated Western Kentucky, Princeton and Pittsburgh by a combined 12 points. Fans braced for Johnson’s first loss Tuesday at lowly Pitt to Loewe’s exploits with 2.4 seconds left.
“I give a lot of credit to everyone out there,” said Loewe. “All the coaches. Guys on the bench and the guys who play. The managers. Everyone contributes. I think our togetherness and perseverance have been huge for us, especially on the road.”
The biggest question, though, is how long can the Gophers keep this up? Mississippi State is the first of three consecutive NCAA tournament-caliber opponents, including Wednesday’s Big Ten opener against Michigan State at the Barn.
The breaks have gone the way of the Gophers so far, but when adversity strikes — and Johnson knows it will happen sooner rather than later — he hopes they continue to show toughness and compete. They haven’t set a specific goal for this season, but they don’t want to finish last either.
“We haven’t really talked about expectations to be honest,” Johnson said. “We know where people have chosen us, and we’re fine with that. We get it. I get it. Our main thing is to get better every day and learn to compete every day. If you do that and worry about it Now, process regulates itself.”