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Men’s basketball: Ben Johnson fighting against the ‘woe’ in Minnesota’s sports mindset

Minnesota finished 13-17 overall and 4-16 in Big Ten play last year. They started 10-1, but finished 3-16 in the league.

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Minnesota Gophers men's basketball head coach Ben Johnson looks frustrated as his team was down by 20 against Illinois in the first half Jan. 4, 2022, at Williams Arena in Minneapolis last season.
John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Ben Johnson knows it intimately; that’s why the University of Minnesota men’s basketball coach is fighting so hard against it.

When Minnesota suffered season-ending knee injuries to forwards Isaiah Ihnen and Parker Fox this summer, Johnson saw what he called a “here we go again” mindset.

“It’s the benefit of me being here for the majority of my life,” the Minneapolis native said. “I think it’s across sports. I don’t care whether you are talking Vikings, Twins, Timberwolves, Gophers. I’ve lived it. I know what it is. That’s why I can confidently say we all have to get over that.”

While repeat knee injuries to Ihnen and Fox are certainly spooky, Johnson wants to break from the viewpoint that setbacks portend more bad things.

Johnson had a nearly six-minute statement to begin his news conference Tuesday, which was held to coincide with the start of this season’s practices on Monday. Ditching the “woe is us” mindset was laced throughout his opening monologue.

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Johnson said he never felt a defeatist mindset creep in his first team at Minnesota, which finished 13-17 overall and 4-16 in Big Ten play last year. They started 10-1, but finished 3-16.

“Never,” Johnson said. “That’s why that group was so important, because they didn’t have that.”

Johnson started off his news conference by thanking U President Joan Gable, Athletics Director Mark Coyle and the school’s Board of Regents for a one-year contract extension in June. His deal now runs through the 2026-27 season.

“I think that’s huge,” Johnson said. “When you’re in the beginning stages in building something worthwhile that we’re trying to do, just that type of backing and confidence not only spreads within our program but through recruiting through the state. (I) can’t thank those guys enough.”

Johnson credited last year’s team for “setting the tone with the brand and the culture of Minnesota basketball.” But the Gophers have another nearly brand-new team this season. After bringing in 10 new players a year ago, mostly older transfers, Minnesota hit the NCAA transfer portal again and Johnson was able to put together a full recruiting class.

While Johnson can’t address it specifically, it’s hard to see how missing out on another in-state recruiting battle doesn’t factor into a resigned macro view. Lakeville North forward Nolan Winter, the son of former Gophers center Trevor Winter, committed to rival Wisconsin last Friday.

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Johnson said he’s excited about his team for a lot of reasons. That starts with lone returning starter Jamison Battle, who has lost 17 pounds to improve himself after averaging a team-best 17.5 points and 6.3 rebounds a year ago.

Prized addition Dawson Garcia, a transfer from North Carolina, and before that, Marquette, was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA to play this season. He and Battle will form a one-two scoring punch.

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“Dawson is a man on a mission right now,” Johnson said. “… I’m sitting here saying he’s gonna be a double-double guy. I’m strictly talking about his mentality and his leadership. … He brings the juice and that warrior’s mentality in everything he does.”

Johnson, who brought in five freshmen in the 2022 recruiting class, also will count on transfer guards Ta’Lon Cooper (Morehead State) and Taurus Samuels (Dartmouth).

“I recruited them for a reason,” Johnson said. “I knew they were good players, but their leadership is off the charts. Ta’Lon is a connector.”

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