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As Ben Johnson takes over, Gophers put the ‘new’ in new look

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — New Minnesota coach Ben Johnson might have been wise to start the first practice with some get-to-know-you icebreakers before moving onto the shooting, passing and defense drills.

Johnson has been heavily emphasizing the team concept in the takeover of a program he’s trying to revive 18 years after he finished playing for them.

There’s no denying the importance of the names on the back of those maroon-and-gold jerseys this fall, though, because the fans are going to have to figure out who these guys are. The season opener is Nov. 9 against Kansas City.

Only two of the 15 players on the roster this fall have returned from the previous squad, Eric Curry and Isaiah Ihnen. Minnesota’s top seven scorers from last season — Marcus Carr (Texas), Liam Robbins (Vanderbilt), Gabe Kalscheur (Iowa State), Brandon Johnson (DePaul), Jamal Mashburn Jr. (New Mexico), Both Gach (Utah) and Tre’ Williams (Oregon State) — all decided to leave rather than hitting the reset button with the Gophers.

“We’ve got to be the toughest team, especially this year. We don’t have a lot of room for error. So our mental toughness, our physical toughness, has got to be on point,” said Johnson, who succeeded Richard Pitino after his former boss was fired after eight seasons. “We’ve got to be the team of all teams. We’ve got to lead the league in high fives and butt slaps, so to speak.”

Johnson spent the last three years as an assistant at Xavier, following five seasons under Pitino. He’s a native of Minneapolis with strong recruiting ties to the state’s rich talent, most of which has matriculated elsewhere in recent years. The Gophers will have to be patient for Johnson’s local relationships to pay off.

For now, with the NCAA’s relaxed transfer rules in full effect, Johnson and his staff just had to put together a roster with players who would appreciate being here rather than wincing about the inevitable growing pains in the daunting Big Ten.

“The good news is that I’ve got a lot of guys who are trying to prove themselves,” Johnson said.

Curry put off his plan to go into coaching and will suit up for a sixth season, thanks to the blanket eligibility waiver issued by the NCAA for 2020-21 due to the pandemic. His longtime friend, point guard Payton Willis, transferred back to Minnesota after playing last year at Charleston. Willis was the fourth-leading scorer in 2019-20 for the Gophers.

Jamison Battle (George Washington), Luke Loewe (William & Mary), Charlie Daniels (Stephen F. Austin), Eylijah Stephens (Lafayette) and Sean Sutherlin (New Hampshire) took the opportunity to play in a power conference after moving up from mid or low major programs. Danny Ogele and Parker Fox made the jump from Division II. There are six Minnesota natives on the team, including Battle, Sutherlin and Fox.

“They had a group chat going before they even got to campus,” Johnson said. “Once they set foot on campus, it was like they’d known each other forever.”

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