Gophers coach Ben Johnson outlines objectives for his freshmen
With about 15 minutes of playing time each game, Minnesota’s freshmen are getting a crash course in big-time college basketball
MINNEAPOLIS — Gophers starting point guard Ta’Lon Cooper is from Michigan, lived in South Carolina and played at Morehead State in Kentucky before transferring to Minnesota this year. He knew little about in-state high school rivalries until stepping into the Gophers locker room.
Cooper has since heard routine chatter from Gophers freshmen Braeden Carrington and Joshua Ola-Joseph about which District 279 school has a better basketball program: Carrington’s Park Center or Ola-Joseph’s Osseo.
“It’s a rivalry,” Ola-Joseph told reporters last month. “We split. We 1-1, so it’s debatable. They won state, but I wasn’t here.”
Carrington calmly replied: “It wouldn’t have changed anything.”
Ola-Joseph had transferred to Compass Prep in Arizona for his last high school season a year ago, when Carrington was leading Park Center to the Class 4A state championship.
It’s a fun back-and-forth, but they aren’t in high school anymore. The Gophers’ four freshmen have been thrust into major college basketball over the past month and the learning curve will grow steeper this weekend. Minnesota (4-3) plays fifth-ranked Purdue (7-0) at 4 p.m. Sunday at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana.
No freshman will have a bigger welcome-to-the-Big-Ten moment than center Pharrel Payne, who will draw the matchup of Boilermakers 7-foot-4 All-America candidate Zach Edey.
“Let’s go and measure ourself against somebody of that caliber and see where we are at individually, and let’s see where we are at as a team,” head coach Ben Johnson said Friday. “That is the type of challenge I want our guys to embrace.”
Johnson met Friday with his four freshman — Carrington, Ola-Joseph, Payne and Jaden Henley — and challenged them to assess other freshmen’s performances, while comparing it to themselves.
“I want those guys to continually do a self-analysis of how they are growing,” Johnson said. “They are fortunate, and I showed them the numbers. For four freshmen to play at a minimum of 15 minutes a game is unheard of. I showed them the numbers and went team by team.”
Johnson pointed to Purdue’s freshmen, particularly guards Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith. They are efficient because they are fundamentally sound and keep it simple, Johnson said.
Here’s what Johnson had to say about each of the Gophers' freshmen:
“You are given some God-given gifts with just your size (6-9, 255 pounds), and I think he’s shooting like 72% from the field. OK, when you get the ball inside, you are productive. … Now the next phases are: how do I get open? It’s angles. Can I read my defender? … Post positioning is so key, demanding the ball.”
“You’ve got some God-given ability. You can break people off the bounce. You can get to the rim. Now, play off 2 feet. No careless turnovers. Be strong with the ball. You’ve got a good midrange (shot).”
“You can really shoot. Hands and feet ready all the time. Doesn’t mean you shoot it, but you have that shot prep detail every single time.”
“He’s like (Jordan Murphy) a little bit. He’s got a unique way to score around the rim. Play to your strengths. Drive the ball. Live in the paint. Be confident with your post-ups. You have a knack for making baskets.”
As for the group as a whole, Johnson said, “This is who you are and it’s good, it’s really good, let’s build on that. That’s what we are trying to hammer home to them right now.”