Minnesota men’s basketball begins a unique season with a showdown against Concordia St. Paul Monday night. Few people know what to expect when first-year coach Ben Johnson poses with a virtually brand new team for the tip at. 19 at Williams Arena.
Even Johnson, who recruited the team almost exclusively through the transfer portal after being hired on March 22, does not know what his rotations will look like or which players will work best with specific teammates.
But Johnson, a former Gophers player from Minneapolis, is sure of one thing.
“Every day, and our guys know it, we have to fight and compete every day of the week,” he said. “We want guys who push for minutes and playing time, and we want to create the best team we can.”
Gophers will likely start Payton Willis (College of Charleston) as point guard and Eylijah Stephens (Lafayette) as off guard, plus Jamison Battle (George Washington), Charlie Daniels (Stephen F. Austin) and Eric Curry (Minnesota), who all played Division I basketball last season. All are seniors.
Curry, a fifth-year senior, is the only member of the team to play for former coach Richard Pitino last season and therefore the only Gophers player with Big Ten experience.
“I always think of things in practice, like playing against a Big Ten team; that’s where my judgment comes from, “Curry said. So any error I see, I’ll say something along the lines of, ‘It’s not going to work against Illinois.’ ”
Concordia-St. Paul completed an abbreviated 2020-21 season 1-13 overall and 1-10 in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. Like any Division II team, the Golden Bears will itch to make a statement against a Power 5 team, and they will bring a list of seven Minnesota players.
“It’s going to be their Super Bowl, and it should be,” Johnson said, “but for our boys it’s our biggest fight right now. Our guys realize after going through the pandemic or being hit by injuries how valuable any “I don’t think I have to give a motivational speech just to get these guys to play hard. It’s our Super Bowl, too.”
Sean Sutherlin, a New Brighton senior who is expected to play big minutes, is also off guard, who sat out in his final season in New Hampshire with a torn labrum at the hip. As a junior, he averaged 12.8 points and 9.3 rebounds, unusual for a 6-foot-4 guard. In fact, he led America East in defensive rebounding (7.6 per game) and double-doubles (12) in his last active season.
“I can rebound and push the break and find shooters,” Sutherlin said. “So I want to play anywhere (Johnson) needs me.”
That skill will be important on a team that is missing two of its biggest players, strikers Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen, after knee surgery out of season. They are the only players on the list not available early, and that includes freshmen Absoulaye Thiam, a guard from Orlando, Fla., And Treyton Thompson, a 6-11 forward from Glenwood, Minn.
Johnson said it is also possible that Fox, a Division II All-American in Northern State from Mahtomedi, could play after the New Year because his rehabilitation – he tore a front cruciate ligament and meniscus in his left knee – is going so well.
“I do not want guys to rush back; they have to come back for the right reasons,” Johnson said. “But I want them to feel safe. He needs to meet with doctors and be medically approved, and there is no reason to rush him back; we want him back in the long run. But he looks good. ”
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