A year ago, Ben Johnson sat in his basketball office as a first-year Gophers head coach feeling the weight of taking over a program that lost 10 players to the transfer portal.

Johnson had barely any pieces to work with, instead inheriting the most ravaged roster in the Big Ten.

Only a year removed from one of the biggest rebuilds in team history, Johnson has no players in the transfer portal.

“It's definitely a better feeling, a more reassuring feeling. Now it's what we can add to make sure this team is as good as it can be.”
Ben Johnson

Instead of worrying about who is leaving, the Gophers expect everyone back who can return — and they're focused on adding talent with transfers and freshmen for next season.

"It's a lot easier when you have a chunk of guys on the roster versus having to fill an entire team," Johnson said Thursday. "The other good part is you know what you have, too. And so you know what you need to add, which helps when it comes to the portal."

Johnson expects to have five scholarship players return from a 13-17 team, including forward Jamison Battle, who led the team in scoring (17.5 points per game) and rebounding (6.3).

Eight scholarships are open for next season, and the Gophers have four high school recruits, so transfers will make up the remaining newcomers. Replacing the starting backcourt is the top priority. Payton Willis, Luke Loewe and E.J. Stephens ran out of eligibility.

"Losing Payton, Luke and E.J. on the perimeter was tough," Johnson said. "If there's an opportunity to get older at a couple of those spots, we'll do it. You still want the young guys to develop, so it's the balance of finding an older guy but not somebody who is going to demand 38 minutes a game."

The Gophers have contacted more than 20 transfers this spring, mostly guards. Some of them have Minnesota ties, including Davidson's Michael Jones (Woodbury), Wofford's Ryan Larson (Cretin-Derham Hall) and Illinois State's Josiah Strong (Champlin Park).

Jones, who played his last game with Davidson against Michigan State in the NCAA tournament, said he is visiting Stanford this weekend, but he also has been talking to Iowa State, Wake Forest and Clemson.

Johnson can't discuss specific players who haven't signed, but he said the Gophers have an advantage recruiting Minnesotans who are already familiar with him and the program.

"The early stages of me being a head coach, one of the advantages in the recruiting part is that the guys in the portal I either knew them, saw them or recruited them at Minnesota or Xavier," Johnson said. "Minnesota for years was a state with only one Division I team. If you couldn't go here, you had to go somewhere. So now if a bunch of Minnesota kids do enter the portal you hope that coming back home is attractive."

In the U's 2022 high school class, Pharrel Payne, Braeden Carrington and Joshua Ola-Joseph are from Minnesota. Jaden Henley, who has committed to the Gophers and will sign this month, is from California.

Johnson is searching the portal for a frontcourt piece, but he believes the 6-9, 230-pound Payne can provide an immediate inside presence as well.

"In our league, size and having a presence down low is huge," Johnson said. "That's one thing we're so excited about Pharrel. ... Even as a freshman he's physically ready."

Also returning in the frontcourt from the current roster are forwards Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen, who missed last season with knee injuries. Both should be ready when practice starts again in June, Johnson said.

“It's a lot easier when you have a chunk of guys on the roster versus having to fill an entire team.”
Ben Johnson

Freshmen Treyton Thompson and Abdoulaye Thiam were the Gophers players who seemed most likely to enter the portal after playing sparingly this season, but they will be back.

Johnson said he might have one of the only Big Ten teams that has a full roster of players excited about returning and not looking into transferring.

"It's definitely a better feeling, a more reassuring feeling," Johnson said. "Now it's what we can add to make sure this team is as good as it can be. Being aggressive, getting a few breaks in the portal and seeing where we can take it."