Six months into his tenure, Ben Johnson already kept one promise as Gophers men's basketball coach: He has stopped the mass exodus of Minnesota's best prospects from leaving the state.
Johnson landed his third local Class of 2022 recruit Monday night after Osseo senior forward Joshua Ola-Joseph announced his commitment to play for the Gophers.
"My family loves the Gophers," Ola-Joseph said after announcing his decision on KSTP-TV (Ch. 5). "It just felt like a no-brainer to me."
The 6-7, 215-pound Ola-Joseph, one of the most exciting finishers in the country, joins Park Center's Braeden Carrington and Park of Cottage Grove's Pharrel Payne in Johnson's first full recruiting class.
The Gophers are off to a better start in local recruiting than where the program was when Richard Pitino was fired in March following his eighth season.
Pitino struck gold locally with current NBA players Amir Coffey and Daniel Oturu earlier in his tenure, but he signed only one Minnesotan, Alexandria's Treyton Thompson, in his last three recruiting classes, missing on more than a dozen targets in that span.
"There's obviously been some high level kids to leave Minnesota in the last few years," 247Sports.com national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi said. "That's been a major sticking point for the fan base. Ben Johnson has come in and found some up-and-coming local talent. You get these guys in the program and do well with them, you'll start catching the eyes of kids behind them."
Johnson, a former Gophers player and assistant coach, took advantage of existing relationships with high school and AAU coaches. So did his assistant Dave Thorson, who was a longtime coach at DeLaSalle.
The Gophers faced an uphill battle to beat out Michigan State for Cretin-Derham Hall's Tre Holloman and Purdue for Wayzata's Camden Heide, the state's top two seniors. But Johnson and his staff still identified under-the-radar local talent quickly and made them feel wanted.
One of the reasons Gophers athletics director Mark Coyle gambled on hiring an assistant with no head coaching experience was because of Johnson's local ties and pride for his home state.
"You're not going to get every one of them," Coyle said last week. "My point is you've got to get some. Ben's done a wonderful job. I'm just so excited to have him here, with the energy, the passion he's brought to this program."
With seven scholarships to offer or possibly more, the Gophers could add others in-state but also are recruiting nationally.
The Gophers football team's opener vs. Ohio State on Thursday is an important day for the men's basketball program as well. Johnson and his staff are expected to get official visits from East Coast targets Ryan Dunn from New York and Jayden Pierre from New Jersey.
There's a chance the 2022 class could be the group that turns the Gophers around, led by the most Minnesotans joining the program together from high school since 2018.
Carrington was offered a scholarship by Pitino, but he received even more attention once Johnson arrived. Payne and Ola-Joseph picked up their first Division I offers this summer. And the Gophers were the first high-major program to offer them both.
"I've always had confidence in my game," Ola-Joseph told the Star Tribune earlier. "I don't care about rankings or how many offers the next guys has. I believe in my game. I believe I'm a high-major guy."
Ola-Joseph's toughness, leaping ability and high motor turned heads in July. Carrington's one of the best shooters in the nation. Bossi said Payne's upside as a physical post presence could soon raise him to four-star status in 247Sports' updated 2022 class rankings.
"Clearly, Carrington, Payne, and Ola-Joseph, other high-majors felt like they could play at their level," Bossi said. "They got in and locked those kids down. It's not 100 percent sure they would've gotten those guys in past years. So, it's a great starting point."