When coach Ben Johnson searched the transfer portal to fill his first Gophers men’s basketball team this year, he built a team in his image as a player. He was a shooter.
Long before the kids searched for NBA three-point king Steph Curry, Johnson ended his career in 2004, ranked in the top 10 in U history with more than 39% shooting beyond the ‘bow.
“If you can shoot basketball, I’m going to love you,” Johnson said after being hired in late March. “It’s a skill that covers a lot of mistakes.”
There hasn’t been a Gophers game that reflects this better than last Tuesday’s 79-71 victory over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Nine three of four different players fell in the first half.
The Gophers (9-1), who face Green Bay on Wednesday at Williams Arena, finished with 11 three-pointers in their final game, helping them overcome 28 turnovers, the most for the program since 2007.
“That’s who we are,” Johnson said of a team filled with shooters. “There’s a confidence in the guys knowing it’s our style, it’s our brand.”
Senior guard Payton Willis led the Big Ten until Monday’s games with 45% shots from the three-point line. He went 5 against 6 at long range against Corpus Christi.
Last season, the Gophers posted the worst program record, 28.4%, from third to 339th place nationally. But they were 46th nationally and second in the Big Ten with 25.2 attempts per game. They were also third in team history with 730 three-point attempts.
By comparison, the post-Richard Pitino Gophers are shooting 36.4 percent of three, placing seventh in the Big Ten, but they’re also attempting fewer shots beyond the arc per game (21.4).
Johnson told his players in the shootout before the Corpus Christi game that he could see them break the team’s three-point record, which is 18 against Nebraska in 2019-20.
“If we take the right ones, there’s no reason we can’t set the record,” Johnson said.
Minnesota have made three double-digit times this year, including 12 wins over Western Kentucky and Mississippi State. The Gophers have won three times with less than six threes, but were outscored 10-6 in three points in their only loss, to Michigan State.
Equally important to the success of the Gophers was the three-point defense, which ranks second in the Big Ten and 15th nationally for the lowest three-point opponent percentage (26.0).
“There are games we could have a cold streak in,” Johnson said, “but that doesn’t mean we’re going to change who we are and what we do.”
The only returning player from last season to get any minutes was senior big man Eric Curry, who didn’t score three points. So 100% of Minnesota’s three-pointers this season have come from newcomers.
Willis leads the Gophers and is second in the Big Ten at 2.7 threes per game, but not far behind is second-year forward Jamison Battle, tied for fifth at 2.5 per game.
Senior starting goaltenders EJ Stephens and Luke Loewe were recruited at the portal for their three-point shooting and defense. Loewe opened the season 2-on-14 from beyond the arc, but he’s shooting 5-on-14 in his last four games, including three big double-digit games.
Stephens, who has five games with at least two threes this season, leads the team with 46.3% of three shots but is just missing the attempts to qualify for the Big Ten lead.
Battle, the team’s top scorer, shoots 34.2% out of three, but he seems to have unlimited reach. The former 6-7 star of DeLaSalle stops at almost 30 feet and regularly practices contested jump shots.
“If you think you’ve got a good shot, shoot it,” Battle said. “I think that’s what Coach Johnson gave me. I feel like I’ve had that my entire college career, and he exemplified it by giving me the green light to shoot.”
The Gophers got 11 lines from four different players in the Nov. 1 exhibition win over Concordia-St. Paul and never looked back with their shooting confidence.
Shooting is a priority for Johnson in recruiting now and in future Gophers basketball teams.
“When I was in the portal, that’s something he told me directly,” Stephens said. “We know we want guys who can shoot the ball. We have guys who come in next year who can shoot the ball like [Park Center’s] Braeden [Carrington]. Very good shooter, one of the best in the state. It’s something that we highlight in this team. “