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Zulgad: Ben Johnson’s tenure with Gophers will be defined by ability to keep top talent at home

Jalen Suggs
Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs plays against Norfolk State during the second half of a men’s college basketball game in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The University of Minnesota’s decision to hire Xavier assistant Ben Johnson as its men’s basketball coach on Monday undoubtedly will result in skepticism about the 40-year-old’s lack of head coaching experience. We know little about the Minneapolis native’s ability to navigate the in-game x’s and o’s with which head coaches must deal.

It also won’t be surprising if we find out Coyle was not able to break the bank (or come close) for this hire. We don’t know how much, if any, of Pitino’s $1.75 million buyout the university will have to pay since he took the New Mexico coaching job hours after parting company with the Gophers. What we do know is that the Gophers’ athletic department is dropping three men’s sports programs (gymnastics, tennis, indoor track and field) and has lost millions in revenue because of the pandemic.

So offering big bucks to a guy like Arkansas’ Eric Musselman or Loyola Chicago’s Porter Moser — both of whom have their teams in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament — probably was a pipe dream.

While Johnson might not be the splashy hire, he brings one thing Coyle desperately needed from his basketball coach and something Pitino too often lacked during his eight seasons on the job. That’s the ability to convince in-state high school talent that they would be better off making the short move to Williams Arena.

There was a time when the state of Minnesota might have turned out a few good players each season. Some years in the 1980s that number was near zero. These days the number of potential Division I men’s basketball players in Minnesota is competitive with any other state.

The expectation is that the best players won’t stick around. This includes guys like Tyus and Tre Jones, who went to Duke; Jalen Suggs, who is playing at Gonzaga; and Matthew Hurt, who picked Duke. The issue is Pitino didn’t just lose these type of kids, he also swung and missed (or didn’t swing at all) on a second tier of outstanding players such as McKinley Wright IV, who turned into a star point guard at Colorado. Pitino’s decision to go with New York prep star Isaiah Washington turned out to be the type of massive miscalculation that can cost a coach his job.

Johnson is well aware of how things have changed when it comes to the talent that exists in Minnesota. He played high school basketball at DeLaSalle and then completed his college career at Minnesota after starting it at Northwestern. Johnson returned as an assistant on Pitino’s staff in 2013 after going from a graduate assistant’s job at Dayton, to assistant positions at Texas-Pan American, Northern Iowa and then Nebraska. Johnson stayed at Minnesota until departing for Xavier in 2018.

Johnson was the point man on landing Amir Coffey, a four-star recruit from Hopkins and now an NBA player with the Los Angeles Clippers. That was one of Pitino’s top in-state gets, along with a 2018 recruiting class that included Daniel Oturu of Cretin-Derham Hall and Gabe Kalscheur of DeLaSalle.

But far too often the stars (literally) — Hurt was a 5-star and guard Tyrell Terry (Stanford) and forward Zeke Nnaji (Arizona) were 4-stars in the class of 2019 — got away. This year’s prize is Minnehaha Academy 7-footer Chet Holmgren, who is likely headed to Gonzaga or the G League. It isn’t that the Gophers aren’t going to get Holmgren, ranked the top recruit in the country, it’s that any mention of them in the conversation causes guffaws.

There was speculation the Gophers might pursue San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher, whose father, Jim, coached the Gophers from 1975 to ’86. While Dutcher probably would have welcomed the chance to return to Minnesota, he’s 61-year-olds and the Dutcher name carries more weight with longtime Gophers fans than it does young recruits.

Given a choice between a name that brings back memories for Gophers old-timers (present company included) or an energetic young recruiter, Coyle was going to go with the latter every time. Is it a risk? Absolutely. But if Johnson succeeds, any in-game coaching hiccups he might commit likely will be forgiven.