Gophers men's basketball coach Ben Johnson said on his radio show Tuesday that one of the three starters sidelined for last weekend's win against Rutgers could be back soon.
Johnson said on KFAN (100.3-FM) that leading scorer Jamison Battle and senior captain Eric Curry were still day-to-day. But senior guard E.J. Stephens could be cleared to play Thursday against Ohio State at home.
"Hopefully E.J. is ready to go," Johnson said. "Slowly but surely we're getting back to full strength and have a little bit of depth. I think that's the good part about this is we learned that some guys can rise up to the level of expectation. And that's a good thing to have."
Battle, the sixth-leading scorer in the Big Ten at 18.0 points per game, was out with a non-COVID illness. He had 20 points and eight rebounds in an 81-71 loss against Iowa on Jan. 16 in his last game.
Curry, who averaged 8.7 points and 6.8 rebounds in 28.3 minutes, missed the past two games with a left ankle injury he suffered after scoring 19 points in a 71-69 loss Jan. 12 at Michigan State.
Following his season-high 22 points against Iowa, Stephens missed his first game Saturday because of illness or COVID-19 health and safety protocol. Stephens is averaging 12.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.4 steals this season.
Senior guard Payton Willis, who was named Big Ten co-player of the week Monday, had a career-high 32 points and eight three-pointers in the 68-65 win against Rutgers. And senior guard Luke Loewe also had a season-high 19 points Saturday despite being ill.
Johnson said Loewe will be fine going into the Gophers' next game after "kind of having that bug for about 72 hours."
The Gophers (11-5, 2-5 in the Big Ten), who also play Sunday at Wisconsin, were down to seven scholarship players against Rutgers, the Big Ten minimum to play. Johnson had to postpone last Wednesday's game at Penn State and take a brief pause after COVID-19 testing following the Iowa loss revealed more positive cases within the program.
The No. 16 Buckeyes (12-4, 5-2) haven't played since Jan. 18 after their last game was postponed when Nebraska was dealing with COVID issues.
"[Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann] does an unbelievable job," Johnson said on the radio. "They've got experience. They've obviously got E.J. Liddell, one of the best players not only in the Big Ten but across the country. But then they've also got a supporting cast, super solid across the board. We're definitely going to have our hands full. Hopefully, with them having no game the past weekend they're a little bit rusty. We're going to have to try to take advantage of it."
Sophomore walk-on forward Will Ramberg, who played in a few games off the bench in the Big Ten, is also day-to-day after suffering a broken hand last week.
New vaccination policy
Thursday's game against Ohio State at Williams Arena will also be the Gophers' first game implementing a temporary vaccination policy for fans that will be in place from Jan. 26 through Feb. 9.
Fans age 5 and older will have to show proof of vaccination or proof of a negative test taken within 72 hours. Booster shots are not required at this time, per U officials.