Ben Johnson's in a much different situation in early December than he was last season in his first year with the Gophers basketball program.
The Gophers have taken a step back with how they've started, going 4-4 compared to 10-1 in 2021-22. A year ago, they hadn't suffered their fourth loss until their fifth Big Ten game in mid-January.
The slow start compared to last season can be attributed to inexperience but also the injury to All-Big Ten preseason forward Jamison Battle, who missed the first four games.
After struggling following his return late last month, Battle had his best game so far this season Sunday with a team-high 21 points in an 89-70 Big Ten-opening loss at No. 5 Purdue.
"You want to be able to come back exactly how you were before you got hurt," Johnson said on Sunday's postgame radio show. "But it just doesn't work that way. This is probably the right timetable."
Here are four takeaways from Sunday's loss for the Gophers at Purdue to open Big Ten play:
Battle's confidence back
Last week, Battle had a meeting with his head coach about how the season had been for him so far. It was a struggle in his first few games coming off foot surgery.
"It takes time," Johnson said. "He's got his legs back. He's got his confidence back."
In the first three games this season starting with his Nov. 21 debut, Battle averaged 11 points and shot under 30% from the floor against Cal Baptist, UNLV and Virginia Tech.
The 6-7 junior forward clearly needed more time to get comfortable. He resembled his old self Sunday, hitting 5-for-10 three-pointers. Battle was 6-for-26 from beyond the arc entering the game.
He scored 13 of his 21 points in the second half, including three threes to cut a 20-point deficit nearly in half. The next phase of his comeback will be to start the game like he finished it to help the Gophers end a three-game losing streak Thursday against Michigan at home.
The Gophers were able to slow down Boilermakers 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey early by forcing him to shoot 1-for-7 from the field Sunday to start the game, but his struggles didn't last long.
Edey, who finished with 16 of his career-high 31 points in the first half, shot 10-for-16 from the field the rest of the way. He also outrebounded the Gophers by himself 22-21.
Sophomore center Treyton Thompson missed the game with an undisclosed illness, but his presence would've probably only given the Gophers more fouls to use on the Big Ten player of the year favorite.
Joshua Ola-Joseph, Dawson Garcia, and Pharrel Payne all picked up at least two fouls in the first half guarding Edey to no avail. Another game plan will be in order to keep Michigan's 7-footer Hunter Dickinson from having a similar impact.
How will the Gophers compete on the boards in the Big Ten this season? The word is out that this is arguably their biggest weakness.
For the second straight season, Johnson's team is last in the conference in rebounding margin (minus-4.9). The margin has been much more glaring in their four losses (minus-12.8), including 41-21 against the Boilermakers.
Rebounding needs to be a team responsibility. There's no Big Ten rebounding leaders like Jordan Murphy or Daniel Oturu walking through the Barn doors. The Gophers are the only Big Ten team with no player among the top 25 rebounders in the conference.
Payne (5.8) and Garcia (5.4) are the Gophers' leaders on the glass this year, but they combined for just two rebounds against Purdue. Guards Braeden Carrington and Ta'Lon Cooper outrebounded the U's frontcourt players (Payne, Garcia, Ola-Joseph and Battle) 11-6 in Sunday's game.
In their three previous losses, the Gophers combined to shoot 36% from the field, 27% from three-point range and 55% from the foul line vs. DePaul, UNLV and Virginia Tech.
Probably the biggest positive takeaway from Sunday's blowout loss was the way the Gophers showed improvement offensively. They scored 43 points on 17-for-32 shooting (53%) in the second half, which nearly matched Purdue's output after halftime.
The Battle-Cooper tandem combined for 26 points on 10-for-14 shooting, including 6-for-8 from three-point range. Cooper also added five of his eight assists in the second half with only one turnover. The Gophers had only eight turnovers in the game.
Another plus was the aggressiveness of Ola-Joseph and Carrington, who combined for 19 points. In his first career start, Ola-Joseph opened the game strong and finished with 10 points on 5-for-10 shooting. Carrington had seven of his nine points in the second half in 13 minutes. The former Park Center standout was also the only Gophers player to reach the foul line going 2-for-3.
The next step for Johnson's offense is establishing a post presence. Foul trouble limited Garcia and he finished with four points before fouling out. Payne took just one field goal in the game in 18 minutes, but he only played six minutes in the second half.