SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. — Jaden Henley didn't know much about Gophers basketball until coach Ben Johnson and assistant Marcus Jenkins started recruiting him heavily last year all the way from Minnesota.
Fast forward to this week, and the 6-7 freshman from Ontario, Calif., started at guard for the Gophers in the SoCal Challenge.
"It felt really good to be able to play in front of my family at the next level," Henley said. "It was a great experience for me."
The Gophers were building a presence in Southern California well before they arrived during Thanksgiving week. California natives on the team include Henley, graduate transfer Taurus Samuels (Oceanside) and coach Jenkins (Lompoc).
This week's SoCal Challenge brought a homecourt atmosphere for the Gophers, with a strong fan turnout that included the players' friends and family members at the 2,000-seat Pavilion at JSerra High School.
But the U's recruiting base continues to be established in the Golden State, especially recently after the signing of Riverside 7-foot, five-star center Dennis Evans III.
"Marcus did a great job and was the lead on Dennis and Jaden building relationships," Johnson said. "I think with the Big Ten expanding out West with UCLA and USC coming into the mix, we can go into a home on the West Coast, and you can talk Big Ten basketball. It's not odd. … It's a little bit more realistic than it was before."
Jenkins, who was hired as Johnson's final assistant last season, grew up about three hours north of Los Angeles. He knows what it's like to play college basketball far from home at Air Force, so he understood how the Gophers could find prospects willing to leave the state for the right program.
"It doesn't seem like a natural fit, but when you peel back a couple of layers it is," Jenkins said about Californians in Minnesota. "Why is it? It's because of the people. From everybody from the top on down. It starts with Ben and our staff, but also the fans, alumni and the people from Minnesota."
A three-star prospect at Colony High School, Henley's only scholarship offer was from San Diego State when Jenkins made him a priority with the Gophers last year. Other Power Five programs targeted Henley after he committed to Minnesota, but he was loyal to the Big Ten program that believed in him early on in the recruiting process.
"He didn't lie to me or anything," Henley said about Johnson. "Usually coaches try to build a recruit's head up, but they were really honest with me, and I love that. I think they did the same thing with Dennis. I think that's why Dennis loves it here, too,"
When Henley visited the Gophers and watched a game last season, his family was "blown away" by the fan support and the campus environment. The same situation occurred when Evans made his official visit this fall before committing.
"I really liked the culture," said Evans, who watched the Gophers beat Cal Baptist in overtime Monday. "It's a cool thing seeing that they're willing to go far away just to find players who fit into their program."
The Gophers landing Evans and establishing a relationship with AAU coaches such as Team Inland's Kool-Aid Perry also helped them with other rising California prospects.
Four-star junior Deshawn Gory, a 6-8 forward, played with Evans last season before transferring to nearby Oak Hills. He's being looked at by Kentucky and Kansas, but the Gophers are in a good spot with Gory early. Johnson also offered a scholarship recently to four-star junior guard Trent Perry from Harvard Westlake in Los Angeles.
"The Big Ten has made it a little bit easier to plant that Minnesota flag out in California," Jenkins added. "That is helping us, and it does make it a little bit more of a natural fit. USC and UCLA can't have all the guys. California is a big state. There are kids out here that for some reason feel overlooked. We provide the opportunity to play at the highest level in arguably the best league in the country."