When the Gophers upset five ranked opponents last season, the two players who put them over the top were Marcus Carr and Liam Robbins, among the Big Ten's top point guard-center tandems.
After the firing of Richard Pitino following a 14-15 eighth season, Carr and Robbins were clearly Minnesota's biggest losses to the transfer portal, eventually landing at Texas and Vanderbilt, respectively.
They weren't just two of the league's top players last season, but Carr led the Gophers in scoring (19.4), assists (4.9), steals (1.1). Robbins was second on the team in scoring (11.1), and he was the leader in rebounds (6.6) and blocks (Big Ten-best 2.7).
How will Ben Johnson replace Carr's scoring and facilitating in the backcourt, and the 7-footer Robbins' inside presence? The Gophers could go with a production-by-committee approach this season, he said.
"I think with this team it's going to be somebody different stepping up every night," Johnson said after Tuesday's first practice. "And when you play like that everybody has to have buy-in, everybody has to be a part of it. The team mindset, the team culture, the team aspect, that wins out in the long run."
There didn't appear to be much of a team aspect when it came to the Gophers last season, especially when relying so heavily on Carr. Even with Carr's career-high 41 points on Feb. 27, Minnesota still fell 78-74 to last-place Nebraska on the road last season.
When Robbins ended the season hampered and sidelined with an ankle injury, the Gophers lost eight of their last nine games, including seven straight losses.They had no depth behind him.
Of course, it would've drastically changed the projections for the Gophers in 2021-22 if they were returning Carr and Robbins in Johnson's first year. But now there will be several players trying to replace what that pair produced for Pitino last season.
Below are my best early guesses for players who could fill different roles for the Gophers this season:
Jamison Battle – The 6-7, 225-pound former DeLaSalle standout averaged 17.3 points and 5.2 rebounds as a sophomore at George Washington. He also set school records for three-pointers made (89) and attempted (243) as a freshman in 2019-20. The Gophers have high expectations for Battle, who could end up being one of the top shooters in the Big Ten. Fellow transfers E.J. Stephens, Luke Loewe, and Payton Willis have all had multiple 20-point games in their careers, too. But Battle has the frame to possibly get more buckets inside and out.
"We are going to rely on him a lot, and I think that is something he has embraced," Johnson said. "I think it's something he is excited for."
Sean Sutherlin – It might surprise some folks to see the 6-5 former Irondale star as potentially the top rebounder, but he's got the track record to back it up. Before missing last season with a torn labrum, Sutherlin was one of the top rebounding guards in the country. He led the America East in double-doubles (12) and finished second on New Hampshire with 9.3 boards per game in 2019-20. Knee injuries to forwards Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen mean the guards will have to do much more rebounding this year.
Payton Willis – The Gophers really need a calm and cerebral guard who can help run the offense in the Big Ten. Willis could be that guy. Not only has he started games previously at Minnesota, but he also led Charleston with 3.1 assists per game last season. Don't be surprised to see Loewe spend time as the floor leader as well. He also played that position at William & Mary, averaging 3.2 assists.
TOP SHOT BLOCKER
Treyton Thompson – At nearly 7-feet tall, Thompson is by far the tallest player on the roster. The U's other true big men are Eric Curry and Charlie Daniels, who are 6-9. Curry has experience starting in the Big Ten, but he was never a natural shot blocker. Daniels played center in practice this week with Thompson alongside him at power forward. But Thompson's size and length as a rim protector could be a factor once he adjusts more to the physicality at the college level.
E.J. Stephens – Johnson has consistently said Stephens is most likely the Gophers' most athletic player (only player nearly as bouncy is freshman Laye Thiam). He definitely will use that athleticism to get to the basket and score this season, but the Gophers need him to be a pest in the passing lanes, too. The 6-3 Lafayette transfer averaged 1.5 steals last season, including three games with at least four steals. Lowe was also a two-time all-league defender in his previous program.