During Gophers men's basketball practices this fall, assistant Dave Thorson made sure to let every player know just how much he and first-year head coach Ben Johnson care about defense.
The right-hand man for Johnson makes a habit of running up to the white board and raising his voice so loud that it gets everyone's attention about the scouting report.
"If he feels we're lacking in that aspect, he knows how to get us going with the yelling," senior captain Eric Curry said.
The Gophers (4-0), who play Wednesday night against Jacksonville at home, have adopted an aggressive defensive-minded identity during their undefeated start under Johnson, who first learned to be intensely passionate about defense from Thorson, his old high school coach.
Take a good look at Minnesota's ball-pressure style and it might look familiar.
Johnson and Thorson had success with that defense-first mentality as a player-coach tandem at DeLaSalle — and they're already watching the Gophers have success with that approach this season.
The Gophers are first in the Big Ten in three-point percentage defense (23.9%), first in defensive rebounding (33.0 per game), second in steals (8.25), sixth in turnover margin (plus-1.25), and seventh in blocks (4.5).
"Obviously, he's a very good defensive coach," Johnson said about Thorson, who was at Colorado State last season. "He's going to have a heavy voice in what we do defensively. He knows the college game. He knows our system and how we want to implement."
At his various college assistant jobs, Johnson picked up different defensive ideas after playing for Thorson. From his three-year stint at Xavier, he picked up the term "kills" to describe getting three consecutive defensive stops.
In Friday's 78-49 victory against Purdue Fort Wayne, the Gophers erased a 10-point deficit by recording a season-high 12 kills, eclipsing what they accomplished in previous wins vs. Princeton (seven) and Western Kentucky (six) in the Asheville (N.C.) Championship.
"In the huddle or a timeout, we'll say we've got two stops and let's get a third and make it a kill," senior guard E.J. Stephens said. "It's something Coach really emphasizes, and we try to execute as best we can."
Thorson's influence on Johnson with defense is deep-seated since DeLaSalle's suffocating man-to-man pressure led the Islanders to the first two of Thorson's nine Minnesota state titles in the late 1990s.
"I'm blessed that way that I've had guys just play their tails off for us," Thorson said. "It will be no different now. The great thing is that's how Ben is."
Johnson knew Thorson would be a great teaching voice for his Gophers because "we built DeLaSalle and what we did there primarily on that defense."
The Gophers aren't an offensive juggernaut, but their ability to communicate, work together and execute scouting reports have been a recipe for immediate defensive success.
Six seniors among the seven-man rotation gives the Gophers a high level of experience and basketball knowledge. Starting guards Payton Willis, Luke Loewe and Stephens are all capable of pressuring the ball. Willis (2.3) and Stephens (2.0) are first and tied for third in the Big Ten in steals per game. And Loewe is "one of the best defensive players that we've had in a long time," Johnson said.
"Just his mentality on the ball," Johnson said of Loewe. "There's a reason why he guards the other team's best offensive player. He just has a grit to him, a tenacity to him, and he has no back down."
Defense was something ingrained into Johnson in high school by Thorson, but it's quickly becoming part of his Gophers basketball program's culture as well.
"We talk about win with our defense and have fun with your offense," Johnson said. "Especially this year, we have to guard, and we have to stop people. That's just kind of our identity. If you want to be successful in this league, you have to have stops in the half-court."