Who will be the man in the middle for new Gophers basketball coach Ben Johnson next season?
Johnson and his coaching staff are busy searching the transfer portal to add much-needed size and depth to the frontcourt to compete in the Big Ten. They currently don't have a player on the roster to play the center role.
"It's a dog fight," Johnson told the Star Tribune recently. "Anytime you see guys available at [point guard and center] it's a dog fight. For us, I feel pretty comfortable with what we have in the backcourt and on the perimeter. So, now it's trying to add depth to our frontcourt."
A year ago, Johnson's predecessor Richard Pitino found the replacement for All-American and NBA draft pick Daniel Oturu when he landed Drake 7-footer Liam Robbins in the spring.
Robbins leaving the Gophers for Vanderbilt (with his uncle and associate head coach Ed Conroy following) this spring opened up a significant hole at center for the U for the second straight offseason.
"Bigs are hard to find," Johnson said. "They're not just walking down the street – guys with size. And on top of that, size plus the ability to play at this level is hard to come by. Everybody wants them. You just got to find creative ways to hopefully put yourself into position to get one of them."
Gophers assistant Jason Kemp worked with one of the top centers in the country at William & Mary in Nathan Knight, who is currently playing with the Atlanta Hawks. Oturu, recruited by Johnson in high school, is with the Los Angeles Clippers. You can bet those are selling points with big men targets for the staff.
Currently, the Gophers have five scholarships to work with for adding talent and depth. Johnson said it's unlikely they use all 13 scholarships for next year, but they might use a few more of them.
Of the six transfers signed this spring, only 6-8 Division II All-American and Minnesota native Parker Fox is a post player. Forward Isaiah Ihnen, a 6-9 sophomore, is the only player returning from last season's roster. And 6-11 incoming freshman Treyton Thompson from Alexandria signed in November.
Fox was the highest profile transfer to pick the Gophers last month. His finalists included Ohio State, Florida State, Creighton, and Vanderbilt. An advantage was the Mahtomedi native wanted to return to play for his home state. The Gophers can only hope that also lures 6-8 Boston College and Shakopee native Steffon Mitchell, who could be deciding soon between San Diego State, Utah, and Minnesota.
Here's a look at some big man options for the Gophers in the transfer market:
Steffon Mitchell, 6-8 senior Boston College – Mitchell has played against his home state school twice during his career. He averaged a career-best 9.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks last season. Speculation is that Mitchell's top two schools are San Diego State and Utah. He's looking to play more as a stretch forward and not an undersized center.
Michael Durr, 7-0 junior South Florida – The 250-pound Durr backed out on his commitment to Virginia Tech and reopened his recruitment this week. Averaged 8.8 points and 7.9 rebounds in 19 games last season. The Atlanta native played for the same AAU program as Timberwolves rookie Anthony Edwards. Indiana, Pittsburgh and Oklahoma State reportedly reached out, too.
Greg Lee, 6-9 senior Western Michigan — The Gophers lost 6-8 former Broncos forward Brandon Johnson to the transfer portal, but they're recruiting another post from the same program. Lee averaged 13 points and a team-high 7.2 rebounds last season. He's reportedly included Minnesota in his top six schools, per GI's Ryan James.
Khadim Sy, 6-11 senior Mississippi — Former four-star junior college All-American averaged 9.0 points and 5.5 rebounds at Ole Miss in 2019-20, but saw those numbers drop with limited playing time in 14 games last season. Started his career at Virginia Tech.
Collin Smith 6-11 senior Central Florida – Smith opted out last season during the pandemic due to an underlying health issue. But he averaged 12.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 2019-20. He previously transferred from George Washington but played on the 2019 UCF team that played Duke in the NCAA tournament.
Sterling Manley, 6-11 senior North Carolina – Had an injury-plagued career after showing glimpses of potential as a freshman playing 37 games with the Tar Heels. Played in just four games last season and missed 2019-20, but Manley appears close to healthy again.
Joel Ntambwe, 6-9 junior Texas Tech — Only played in three games last season for the Red Raiders before deciding to leave for personal reasons in December. Ntambwe sat out the 2019-20 season after transferring from UNLV. He averaged 11.8 points and 5.5 rebounds in 2018-19.
Moussa Cisse, 6-10 freshman Memphis — Former five-star recruit and top 10 player in the 2020 class entered the NBA Draft this spring but will keep his options open to return to college. He averaged 6.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks last season for Penny Hardaway.
E.J Onu, 6-11 senior Shawnee State (Ohio) — The NAIA All-American entered his name into the NBA Draft, but he has plenty of suiters in Division I if he comes back. Onu has a 7-6 wingspan and three-point range. Ohio State, Texas Tech, Indiana and LSU were among schools mentioned early.
Dawson Garcia, 6-11 freshman Marquette — Garcia's not in the transfer portal, but he decided to enter the NBA draft process while leaving open a return to college. New coach Shaka Smart would surely want him back. Johnson recruited Garcia at Prior Lake as a Gophers assistant.
Jericho Sims, 6-10 senior Texas — Sims is not in the portal, either. The Minneapolis native has not declared for the draft yet, but it is a strong possibility. The Longhorns, who are now coached by Chris Beard, could also try to convince Sims to use his extra year of eligibility.