Before Tuesday's practice, coach Ben Johnson lit up when talking about how different his sophomore class looks compared to a year ago for the Gophers men's basketball team.
Last season, the Gophers were the only Big Ten team with four freshmen averaging 20 minutes per game. Three of those players return with the chance to make a big jump because of that experience.
Entering the first week of practice, the Gophers have high hopes for Pharrel Payne, Joshua Ola-Joseph and Braeden Carrington. Showing how much they developed this offseason will come down to "consistency" on a daily basis, Johnson said.
"Now that you've proven you belong," Johnson said, "let's be consistent with your work."
Most freshmen face myriad highs and lows in their first year of college basketball.
That seemed to be multiplied by a hundred for Payne, Carrington and Ola-Joseph after being thrown into the heat of battle for a 9-22 team that finished last in the Big Ten.
"We talked to those guys a lot last year about [how] they have no idea how much it's going to benefit them as sophomores what they went through," Johnson said. "I've just noticed these guys throughout the summer, just the way they've carried themselves. It's like they're upperclassmen."
Upperclassmen such as returning scoring and rebounding leader Dawson Garcia, a few transfers, and forwards Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen have more experience. But all three sophomores are expected to contribute more to Johnson's program coming off a tough year.
The 6-9, 255-pound Payne arguably has the biggest upside of any player on the Gophers' roster. The Cottage Grove forward scored double figures in six of his last 10 games in 2022-23, including a team-high 17 points and nine rebounds in the Big Ten tournament loss to Maryland.
Payne threw the ball down so hard Tuesday in practice, those in the gym seemed to react in awe. The fact he held his own physically against the likes of Purdue's 7-4, 300-pound Big Ten Player of the Year Zach Edey should prepare him for what's next this season.
"It's not going to get any harder than it was [last] year," Johnson said. "You multiply that by the bigs he went up against. Well, now all that's taken away. You've proven you belong."
Carrington, the former Mr. Basketball and Park Center state champion, appeared more ready to play than any freshman on the team before injuries slowed his growth last season.
After missing nine games, the 6-4 guard was starting to turn the corner at the end of the year. Carrington shot 8-for-15 from three-point range in his last four games, including 12 points and four threes in the season-ending 70-54 loss to Maryland in the Big Ten tournament.
"It feels great," Carrington said during a fan event last week. "I feel a lot more confident because obviously last year I lost a lot of my confidence just being in and out of the game. But this summer I felt like I made huge strides in my game. I'm just trying to compete."
Ola-Joseph, the team's most athletic player, measured a vertical jump of 46 inches this summer. At 6-7, he used much of that throwing down a windmill slam in Tuesday's practice, but he's looking forward to proving he's not just a dunker.
Ola-Joseph led all Gophers freshmen with 22 minutes per game and 24 starts last season. The former Osseo standout had 11 double-figure scoring games and shot 38% from three-point range, so he wants to show more of his expanded offensive game this season.
"I've been really focusing on showing I can play [small forward]," Ola-Joseph said last week. "I've made big strides, especially with my jump shot and being versatile. Very excited for the season."