Can a retooled Gophers backcourt speed up their pace in season opener?

THREE THINGS TO WATCH FOR IN GOPHERS OPENER

Who is back and who is out?

The Gophers will open their third straight season dealing with health issues to key players at the forefront. After missing two straight years with knee injuries, Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen shared a special moment in last Thursday's exhibition win against Macalester. Fox played his first game ever at Williams Arena. Ihnen played for the Gophers for the first time since 2021. They'll be vital to the U's frontcourt depth.

Ben Johnson's team is not at full strength, though. Sophomore big man Pharrel Payne (minor injury) and freshman guard Cam Christie (illness) both missed the exhibition game. Payne, the team's projected starting center, is hopeful to play in Monday's opener. Meanwhile, Christie is questionable after being sidelined with mononucleosis since early last month.

New backcourt impact

Transfers Elijah Jenkins and Mike Mitchell Jr. had an impressive Gophers exhibition debut, combining for 31 points (6-for-11 from three), 18 assists (each player had nine assists), 11 rebounds and just one turnover. Jenkins and Mitchell together made the biggest difference in allowing the Gophers to play at a faster pace. They both pushed the ball up the floor at almost every opportunity. This was a team that finished 266th nationally last season in adjusted tempo, per Ken Pomeroy's advanced stats. Sophomore Braeden Carrington, who started alongside Jenkins, had three steals while bringing contagious energy defensively. But Johnson expects a better defensive effort overall from his backcourt after giving up 41 points to Macalester's Caleb Williams. Bethune-Cookman's Zion Harmon, a former top 100 recruit in high school, was the Southwestern Conference freshman of the year last season.

Next step for Garcia

The Gophers struggled to take control against Division III Macalester until they were able to capitalize on their size advantage. With Payne out, Dawson Garcia picked up where he left off late last season by providing an inside presence. The 6-11 junior finished with 19 points on 9-for-14 shooting and 11 rebounds in Thursday's exhibition. In the offseason, Garcia was encouraged by the Gophers to become more vocal this year. He was seen Thursday engaging with teammates and even pumping up the crowd throughout the second half. Fox and Payne should help carry the load inside this season. But Garcia's leadership and consistency are arguably the most important factors to making a jump in Year 3 under Johnson.

GAME INFO

Time: 7 p.m. CT, Monday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Gophers 18-point favorite. Series: The Gophers are 4-0 in the all-time series, including a 79-52 win in the last meeting in 2002. TV: No TV. Online/Live video: Big Ten Plus. Radio: 103.5 FM.

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Elijah Hawkins 5-11 Jr. 12.9*

G – Braeden Carrington 6-4 So. 5.9

F – Joshua Ola-Joseph 6-7 So. 7.4

F – Dawson Garcia 6-11 Jr. 15.3

C – Pharrel Payne 6-9 So. 8.5

* - Points per game at previous college

Reserves – Parker Fox, F, 6-8, Sr.; Isaiah Ihnen, F, 6-9, Jr.; Mike Mitchell Jr., G, 6-2, Jr.; Cam Christie, G, 6-6, Fr.; Jack Wilson, C, 6-11, Sr.; Kadyn Betts, F, 6-8, Fr.; Kris Keinys, F, 6-8, Fr.

Coach: Ben Johnson 22-39 record (3rd season)

Notable: The Gophers could have as many as seven scholarship newcomers make their regular season debut this opening week. Fox has been on the roster for two years but injuries kept him from playing. First-year Gophers Mitchell, Jenkins and Christie are expected to be major contributors in the backcourt. Wilson, a 6-11, 290-pound Washington State transfer, is a backup center option. Betts redshirted last season after graduating high school early. And Lithuanian Keinys joined the team after summer practice.

BETHUNE-COOKMAN WILDCATS

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Zion Harmon 6-0 So. 13.6

G – Dhashon Dyson 6-1 Sr. 11.4*

G – Damani McEntire 6-5 Sr. 2.8

F – Derrick Carter-Hollinger 6-6 Sr. 6.0

F – Jackson Kennedy 6-8 Jr. 10.7*

* - Points per game at previous college

Reserves – Jakobi Heady, G, 6-6, So.; Seneca Willoughby, G, 6-3, So.; James Henderson Jr., F, 6-9, So.; Elijah Hulsewe, C, 7-0, So.

Coach: Reggie Theus 114-169 (9th season)

Notable: Theus, a former NBA player and coach, coached with the Minnesota Timberwolves as an assistant on Kurt Rambis' staff from 2009-11. After stints at New Mexico State (2005-07) and Cal State Northridge (2014-18), Theus returned to college in 2021 to replace Ryan Ridder, who left the Wildcats to take over at UT Martin. He finished with 21 wins combined in the first two seasons at Bethune-Cookman. Theus has also been Bethune-Cookman's athletic director.

Fuller's score prediction: Gophers 79, Bethune-Cookman 65.

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