With all the hype surrounding the hot start for the Minnesota Timberwolves this winter, basketball is making a resounding comeback in the great state of Minnesota. And it looks like the Golden Gopher men’s basketball team wants in on all the fun. Head coach Ben Johnson and company have the boys humming in Dinky Town, which leads me to ask…is Gopher men’s basketball back?!
It’s been tough sledding for the Gopher men’s basketball team the last four seasons. The program is currently in the midst of a five year drought since their last NCAA tournament appearance, and the last four seasons have been disastrous to say the least. The University of Minnesota hired current head coach Ben Johnson in 2021 and the team only won 6 Big Ten games in his first two seasons. Now in 2023-2024, the Gophers have won three of their first four Big Ten games including a huge win in Ann Arbor against Michigan.
Transfer Students Making an Immediate Impact
The Gopher offense has lacked playmakers for the last few seasons, but it looks like Ben Johnson found a couple diamonds in the rough with transfer students Elijah Hawkins and Mike Mitchell.
Hawkins is a junior point guard who transferred from Howard University this season, and has given a much needed boost at the point guard position that the Gophers have been missing for quite some time. Through 15 games, Hawkins is averaging 7.8 assists per game which is second in all of Division I. His playmaking ability has fueled this team so far this season, and has the Gopher offense firing on all cylinders.
Junior guard Mike Mitchell transferred from Pepperdine this season, and he has also been a huge spark to this Gopher offense. The sharp shooter is currently averaging 11 points per game and shooting a whopping 41% from three.
Home Grown Talent
One of the biggest criticisms Gopher men’s basketball coaches have received over the years is their inability to retain high level recruits that come from Minnesota. There are 10 active NBA players from Minnesota and Amir Coffey is the only one of those players to stay in Minneapolis for college.
This is still an ongoing issue, but Ben Johnson has done a much better job of retaining some of the top talent that comes out of this state. Players like Dawson Garcia, Pharrell Payne, Braeden Carrington, Joshua Ola-Joseph and Parker Fox have all come from Minnesota high schools and made major contributions to the team’s success so far this season.
Can They Break the NCAA Tournament Drought?
Don’t get me wrong, there is still a ton of season left for the Gophers to completely piss the bed and revert back to their old losing ways. But in a year where the Big Ten is competitively somewhat down, I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest this group can’t make a run at the NCAA Tournament this year. This Gopher squad looks like they are improving in every game, and I think they’ve got the pieces to make a run in the Big Ten this year.
The Big Ten men’s basketball tournament is also being hosted at the Target Center this year. This will be a huge home court advantage for the Gophers in a tournament they will need to advance deep in, to have any chance of making the NCAA Tournament.
But for all of you hoops fans in this state, enjoy the ride while it lasts. Basketball is so back baby!