Since taking over as Gophers men's basketball coach last season, Ben Johnson has had an especially hard time establishing the center position.

The future, of course, seemed set when five-star 7-footer Dennis Evans was supposed to be the Gophers' man in the middle next season. But their best recruit in 20 years asked out of his national letter of intent last week, and the Gophers have granted his release.

How can the U compete in the Big Ten without more of a formidable inside presence moving forward? The answer might be already in the program.

The Gophers (7-20, 1-16 Big Ten) enter Thursday's game against Rutgers having started three different players at center this season: Dawson Garcia, Pharrel Payne and Treyton Thompson.

Garcia, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, is a 6-11 all-league caliber talent but as a power forward. Payne's slightly undersized for a center at 6-9, but his potential as a consistent low post presence is something the Gophers have lacked for the last two years.

"I think teams are now preparing to face Pharrel," Johnson said. "He has an unbelievable future, an incredibly bright future. I know he's about the right stuff. That's going to allow him to continue to get better."

The Gophers didn't have Payne on their radar when Johnson was hired two years ago.

Johnson tried to convince 7-footer Liam Robbins to stay with the program after he led the Big Ten in blocks. But Robbins transferred to Vanderbilt to follow his uncle, former U assistant Ed Conroy. Robbins is now leading the Commodores in scoring and rebounding, and ranks fifth in the nation in blocks.

To replace Robbins, the Gophers recruited 7-foot North Carolina transfer Sterling Manley, but he decided to turn pro. That forced Johnson to persuade Eric Curry to leave his role as a graduate assistant to step into the vacant center spot in his sixth year last season.

But in the 2022 recruiting class, the Gophers eventually found Payne, someone to build an inside game under Johnson. The Cottage Grove native was the best frontcourt talent to sign with the U out of high school since Cretin-Derham Hall's Daniel Oturu in 2018.

Oturu's role and development as a freshman, though, was different than how the Gophers brought Payne along for most of this season. One was thrown into the fire earlier.

Oturu started 31 games his freshman season, including the first 18 games of his college career. Even playing alongside All-Big Ten forward Jordan Murphy, Oturu posted several double-doubles by the time he entered the bulk of his first Big Ten season. He became the first Gopher drafted into the NBA in 16 years after his All-America sophomore year in 2020.

At 255 pounds, Payne's more physically ready for college than Oturu was, but Payne has started four times in 27 games this season. And that was when Garcia was sidelined with a foot injury. Interestingly, Payne's biggest jump happened after he struggled in his first two career starts in late January and early February losses at Northwestern and Rutgers.

Johnson explained his decision to use Payne mostly as a sixth man this season.

"I think so many people get caught up in who starts the game, but I think it's more about rhythm," Johnson said. "Maybe for him it helped him early to see the game unfold. Here's how they're guarding ball screens and defending in the post. Having Pharrel going against the second unit big sometimes is to our advantage and to his advantage."

In his last six games, Payne is averaging 10.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks. He's scored in double figures four times, including a career-high 18 points, 10 rebounds and six assists when Garcia returned vs. Penn State. Payne has been coming off the bench again in the last four games, but getting the starts gave him a different mind-set.

"It was great to have Dawson back because he opens the court for everybody else," Payne said earlier. "I took a step confidence-wise knowing I had to go head-to-head with other bigs — and I was the option."

Payne's growing inside presence, alongside Garcia, still paints an attractive picture of the U's future frontcourt even without Evans. Not so long ago that wasn't the case.

"Those two guys — I actually met with [them] together," Johnson said. "I told those two [Wednesday] that's got to be something we continue to grow and build."