Photo Courtesy of Jim Mone / AP Photo
Photo Courtesy of Jim Mone / AP Photo

Who’s in: Looking at the ever-growing Gopher basketball squad (so far)

April 21, 2021

Ever since new head basketball coach Ben Johnson was first brought in to the University of Minnesota on March 22, Gopher fans knew that the program was due for a rebuild and man, did they get one.

Since the departure of Richard Pitino many of his players followed suit, looking for new pastures after a dismal Big Ten season that saw the Gophers go from ranked 16th in the country, to the bottom of the Big Ten.

Nine players have already officially stated their intent on leaving the University of Minnesota including: Marcus Carr, Jamal Mashburn Jr., Liam Robbins, Gabe Kalscheur, Tre Williams, David Mutaf, Jarvis Omersa, Sam Freeman and Martice Mitchell. Forward Brandon Johnson has also announced that he is pursuing the 2021 NBA Draft, however he is retaining his last year of eligibility by not signing an agent.

So obviously things will not be easy for Johnson in his first season, with only TWO confirmed players back from the team last year, Both Gach and Isaiah Ihnen. With nine scholarships to fill before play resumes for college basketball, the new head coach has already been hard at work recruiting transfers, and a pattern has begun to rise and one that has not been seen on this campus for years, a core of native Minnesotans, each with a chip on their shoulder. Let’s take a look at the six who have joined the new ranks so far.

Jamison Battle, Forward

Battle was the first transfer to join the new show under Ben Johnson, and has the scoring talent to be a mainstay in this team. He averaged 17.3 ppg and 5.2 rpg at George Washington in the Atlantic 10 conference but was an efficient scorer from the outside, shooting just under 36 percent from three. Battle was the main man in a pretty bad GWU team that finished with a 5-12 record, but this got him into the spotlight and many scouts ranked him as one of the better available transfers in the country. The Robbinsdale native not only has the intangibles but he’s in for the culture they’re trying to build, according to Johnson. No doubt, Battle will be a main scoring threat for this upcoming season, his shooting is no joke and he has underrated athleticism that allows him to drive to the rim. Look out for him.

Luke Loewe, Guard

One can assume this transfer is due to the fact that the Gophers have brought in former William & Mary assistant, Jason Kemp who was the assistant coach for two seasons there. Loewe is an underrated scorer, averaging 16.2 ppg last year in the Colonial Athletic Conference (CAA) although his 3-point shooting took a major dip between last season and the year before going from 44 percent on around three attempts per game, to 29.8 percent on five attempts per game. Opposite to his offensive efficiency, his defensive effort has seemed to multiply this past season, averaging 1.4 spg and only 1.6 fpg. Scoring was obviously a priority for Johnson this offseason and Loewe is not the last recruit on this list to average above 15 ppg. It’ll be interesting to see how their scoring talents transition to Big Ten play.

EJ Stephens, Guard

Stephens is a truly underrated guard with high scoring potential. He averaged 16.4 ppg last season with Lafayette in the shortened Patriot League season, along with averaging 4.7 rpg and 2.5 apg. Surely Stephens will be contesting for the starting SG role, although with Both Gach looking like he’s returning, he may have that position locked down. Although he could do with improving his shot percentage beyond the arc, Stephens is immaculate from the free throw line, averaging over 90 percent from the line last season. As coach Johnson adds to his depth for his first season as the head coach, it is clear he wants to add scoring and do the Gophers have that now with Stephens.

Sean Sutherlin, Guard

Sutherlin did not play last season due to a hip surgery he went through before play started, but don’t let the injury scare you. Sutherlin is a high-intensity guard with a passion for rebounding and a knack for double-doubles. During the 2019/20 season, he led the American East conference in double-doubles with 12 and was second in the conference in rebounds as a 6’5 guard. In a game against Bryant that year, he dropped a monster stat line of 21 points and 20 rebounds, one of his four games with 20+ points. If he can get back to his high-flying self, Sutherlin will no doubt do damage on the boards for the Gophers.

Parker Fox, Forward

Many tout Fox to be the pick of the bunch from this incoming class, destined for the next level when it comes. Fox was a Division II first team All-American for Northern University last season and completely dominant on both sides of the basketball. He averaged 22.3 ppg and 9.9 rpg last season, shooting a mind-blowing 65 percent from the field but Fox has more dimensions than offense. He also racked up 74 blocks and 37 steals along with 10 double-doubles, he’s the whole package. His explosive offense and aggressive defense will surely endear Gopher fans next season and perhaps Fox has most to prove out of his group. He’s coming from a Division II program and has never before played top tier competition, yet he is considered to have the most potential out of the list. It will be interesting to watch Fox’s development for the two years of eligibility he has left.

Payton Willis, Guard

The former Gopher makes a return to the Gophers this offseason, the first time a player has returned to Minnesota after originally playing for them since Mo Hargrow went to Arkansas in 2004, returning to Minneapolis in 2005. This will be the third season that Willis joins a new team in his five years of college basketball, playing two seasons with Vanderbilt before Minnesota and one the College of Charleston last season. He averaged 13.4 ppg in the CAA last year in 19 games, with Charleston finishing third in the conference. Since last playing for the Gophers, Willis has been impressive in improving his shooting percentages especially his three-point shooting, making 40 percent of his three bombs on almost six attempts per game. This is an improvement on his already respectable 35 percent when he was on the Gophers and he has made major improvement on his field goal percentage, going from 38 percent on the Minnesota to 46 percent last year. First and foremost, Willis is a shooter and if he can keep up his recent efficiency, look for him as an underdog in this squad.

1 Comment

One Response to “Who’s in: Looking at the ever-growing Gopher basketball squad (so far)”

  1. Jerry Moulton on April 21st, 2021 10:33 pm

    At first I thought why hire Coach Johnson but now I think it’s a really good idea! Hopefully his youth, energy and connections to Minnesota high school coaches will encourage a lot of Minnesota players to choose The U of M!

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