The same day he was introduced to replace Richard Pitino as Gophers’ men’s basketball coach, Ben Johnson held a virtual meeting about wanting to keep the team together.
Johnson knew that wasn’t realistic.
Still, he didn’t expect to lose nearly every player to the transfer portal.
“With this being the first year of the portal when guys are able to transfer and play right away, I don’t blame them,” Johnson said. “I understand that relationships are big in anything.”
After the Gophers lost 10 scholarship players from last season, Johnson’s rebuilding project is extreme but not unprecedented with college basketball experiencing a massive free agency-like period. The portal is reshaping rosters across the country.
With nearly 1,700 players in the portal, no program avoided getting hit, but the Gophers experienced a bigger exodus than just about everyone else.
They have one returning player from last season — one. And Johnson said it took heavy persuading to get junior forward Isaiah Ihnen to stay.
With Ihnen back, the Gophers return only 7% of their minutes played from last season. According to barttorvik.com, that’s fewer returning minutes than all but two of the 358 teams in Division I; Tennessee Martin and Bethune-Cookman return 2% and 5.2% respectively.
Johnson anticipated maybe losing a handful of players after the team finished 14-15 overall and 13th in the Big Ten in Pitino’s eighth season.
“I don’t think you ever come into a situation with the intent to force everybody out,” Johnson said. “I wanted guys who were excited to be here and for the right reasons. I wanted guys who were on board with the way we were going to do things.”
There were 22 high-major programs with four or fewer players returning as of mid-June, according to ESPN’s updated rosters, including blue bloods such as Duke, Kansas and Kentucky. Ten of those 22 teams had new coaches, including the Gophers and Penn State in the Big Ten.
The Gophers led all teams from power conferences with 10 players in the portal, but Texas Tech (nine), DePaul, St. John’s and Utah (eight each) are not far behind.
“Twenty-seven percent of Division I had at least six guys enter the transfer portal,” ESPN college hoops analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “It’s just, you have to expect chaos. When you’re 19 years old and don’t have immediate success in college, your first inclination now is the grass is greener somewhere else. That’s my one issue.”
When co-captain Gabe Kalscheur hit the portal in early April, it was a surprise to people outside of the Gophers program. Johnson saw it coming. He not only recruited Kalscheur but they both played at DeLaSalle for Dave Thorson, who joined the Gophers staff.
The situation seemed like a chance to revive his career, but Kalscheur had already been leaning toward leaving Minnesota. He had struggled to recapture the success of his freshman season that included a breakout performance in the 2019 NCAA tournament.
“I encouraged him that if he needed a fresh start to get it,” Johnson said. “The last thing we would want is for him — because the relationship I had, and Coach Thorson had with him — to have another bad experience here. I didn’t want him to stay for the wrong reasons.”
Kalscheur, who is now at Iowa State, was one of several players to leave the Gophers with the chance to take advantage of the NCAA’s new rule allowing first-time transfers to play immediately. Tre’ Williams was the only other transfer in that group to land at another high major program, going to Oregon State.
The NCAA can be tougher on players transferring multiple times to receive waivers to play right away, but former Gopher starters Marcus Carr (undecided), Liam Robbins (Vanderbilt), Both Gach (Utah), and Brandon Johnson (DePaul) entered the portal anyway.
Carr and Robbins, the Gophers’ top two scorers last season, would have been one of the best point guard-center tandems in the country. But Ben Johnson didn’t waste time dreaming about that scenario.
Despite being the No. 1-ranked transfer on the market by ESPN.com, Carr declared for the NBA draft and signed with an agent a month ago. Robbins followed his uncle, former Gophers associate head coach Ed Conroy, to Vanderbilt after Johnson chose not to retain Conroy on Minnesota’s staff.
“I wasn’t planning the team thinking [Carr] was going to be back,” Johnson said. “I knew if I didn’t keep Ed, then Liam was probably not going to stay. At the end of the day, you have to think Year 4 and Year 5 what is putting this program in position to be the most successful? That’s with staff and players.”
Brandon Johnson and Gach were strongly considering staying put and were the last to transfer out. For Johnson, picking DePaul meant a chance to return home to Chicago. Gach, an Austin native, left his home state again for Utah, where he began his career.
Only Ihnen stayed out of the portal.
“I had to fight to keep him for almost two weeks,” Johnson said. “His people were telling him you got all these options.”
‘Two feet in’
As the only Big Ten team with no starters returning next season, the Gophers are picked to finish last out of 14 teams in several early league projections.
Jamison Battle was the first player to believe in what Johnson is building for the future when he committed a week after the Gophers hired their new coach on March 22.
“I was ushering in a new era,” said Battle, a George Washington transfer and DeLaSalle product. “He told me I was the first person to be two feet in with what he’s doing at Minnesota. That stuck with me.”
William and Mary’s Luke Loewe and Lafayette’s E.J. Stephens soon wanted to be a part of Johnson’s vision as well. They committed to the Gophers less than a week later and on the same day.
Between the end of March and mid-April, before even hiring his full staff, Johnson landed six transfers. They included Payton Willis, who agreed to another stint with the Gophers, and Minnesota natives Parker Fox and Sean Sutherlin.
“He wants guys who want to be at Minnesota, guys who are all in,” Stephens said. “He wants guys who can defend, high-energy and good character guys. He wants offensively everybody on the floor to be a threat and be able to make a play.”
While Pitino’s former players hit the portal at an alarming rate, Johnson added transfers who were fully bought in and building chemistry even before they arrived on campus in June.
They connected every week on text messages and video calls.
“It was spearheaded by different guys,” Johnson said. “These guys started a group chat a long time ago. Every time I would get a guy, the guys already committed would reach out and say, ‘Hey, can we get that kid’s number?” These guys have been talking for a while now.”
With three scholarships left for the 2021-22 season, the Gophers are intent on adding at least one more player with their frontcourt severely lacking size and depth.
Johnson realizes he’s being judged heavily right now on the player exodus from the program, but he feels fortunate to begin his tenure with almost entirely his team — the effects of a portal-driven era of college basketball.
“Sometimes guys need a full change,” Johnson said. “We were comfortable with how it played out. At the end of the day, you want what’s best for these student-athletes, especially in a time of change.”