When his starters get into foul trouble or need rest this season, first-year Gophers coach Ben Johnson has, among the reserves at his disposal, a 7-foot freshman hungry to play.
So far, Johnson has been hesitant to throw Minnesotan Treyton Thompson into meaningful minutes, just as he's mostly held back on subbing out his senior backcourt with freshman guard Abdoulaye Thiam.
Thompson and Thiam made strides during the summer to prepare themselves to contribute to the Gophers, but their opportunities have been limited with a veteran group ahead of them.
"You keep talking to them about it's a process," said Johnson, whose Gophers play Wednesday at No. 10 Michigan State. "I think those guys understand if you look across the landscape of high major college basketball, the amount of true freshmen playing significant minutes or getting in the rotation is slim."
Under current NCAA rules, basketball players — unlike football players — aren't able to use a redshirt if they compete in any games during the season. Thiam and Thompson have played in 13 games combined, but only one in the Big Ten.
At next week's NCAA Convention, the men's and women's basketball Oversight Committee will discuss a policy that would allow redshirt candidates to play four regular season conference games without using a season of eligibility.
It's a common path for freshmen to have minimal playing time to start their careers, but the Big Ten actually has 11 of 14 teams with at least one freshman averaging double figures in minutes, including Michigan State. The Gophers join Rutgers and Penn State with zero freshmen in their rotations. But the Nittany Lions have no freshmen on their roster.
On the other side of Wednesday's matchup for the Gophers (10-3, 1-3 in the Big Ten) is Michigan State's Max Christie, who leads all players in Big Ten freshmen of the week awards.
After turning the corner from a tough stretch, Christie was named Big Ten freshman of the week Monday for the fourth time this season after scoring 21 points in a win against Nebraska.
"I never really saw him lose confidence, other than maybe one week," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after the Nebraska win. "He's very hard on himself, which is a great quality until it works in reverse, and it was for about a week."
A 6-6, 195-pound five-star recruit and McDonald's All-American from Illinois, Christie struggled with consistency earlier this season, including with nine points on 3-for-9 shooting in Michigan State's 75-67 win Dec. 8 at Minnesota.
Christie, who has a younger brother, Cameron, being recruited by the Gophers in the 2023 class, scored under double figures seven times in his first 11 games. But he's averaging 16 points in his last three games for the Spartans, who have won eight in a row.
"I love the way he approached it," Izzo said. "He's in here every day taking care of his body. He just does everything the right way. Max deserves what he's got."
Last season, the Gophers started freshman Jamal Mashburn Jr. at the end of the season and he averaged 8.8 points in 24.3 minutes under Richard Pitino.
Thompson, a Glenwood, Minn., native signed by Pitino, is averaging 2.7 minutes in six games this season behind seniors Eric Curry and Charlie Daniels. The 6-3 Thiam, a junior college transfer from Orlando added last May, is averaging 1.1 points in 4.1 minutes in seven games.
The Gophers rank last among 358 Division I teams in bench minutes percentage (14.5), per Kenpom.com. Sophomore Jamison Battle ranks second among all major conference players with 36.6 minutes per game.
"You got a lot of guys playing a lot of minutes," Battle said. "Even if they're not playing they're still going to go out and do whatever it takes to help the team win. That's what really good teams have and that's what we have here. If a guy's not playing there is no moping around after the game in the locker room."
Johnson hasn't thought much about the redshirt rule possibly changing in college hoops. He knows his freshmen are responding the right way despite not having a big role for the Gophers.
"They're an important part of this team and do a good job in practice not only getting themselves better but getting our team better," Johnson said. "I think those guys understand that they're not the only ones. I know it's not easy, but if they keep preparing the way they are when their number is called, they'll be able to produce and perform."
Marcus Fuller's top Big Ten freshmen
1. Max Christie, Michigan State
2. Bryce McGowens, Nebraska
3. Caleb Houstan, Michigan
4. Malaki Branham, Ohio State
5. Chucky Hepburn, Wisconsin
6. Moussa Diabate, Michigan
7. Caleb Furst, Purdue
8. C.J. Wilcher, Nebraska
9. Julian Reese, Maryland
10. Payton Sandfort, Iowa