Family and friends surprised Gophers coach Ben Johnson on Wednesday by wearing "Homegrown" shirts with his old college No. 22 on the back for that night's victory against Wisconsin-Green Bay at Williams Arena.
The shirts were made by fellow University of Minnesota and DeLaSalle graduate Johnathan Johnson, who started the Homegrown Company, a sports apparel line highlighting his love for Minnesota.
"I'm just really excited for what they're building," Johnathan Johnson said. "I'm going to do everything I can to show my support."
When the University hired Ben Johnson last March, it meant going all-in on Minnesota ties, with a coach fully committed to the homegrown approach of rebuilding Gophers men's basketball.
Whether it was filling his coaching staff or rebuilding the roster, Johnson paid strong attention to people with connections with his home state. And that Minnesota pride has helped generate even more buzz from fans and recruits during a 10-1 start.
"I think it helps with having pride in this program from the start," Johnson said. "Those guys are going to be indebted, and they're going to be following from the time they leave until who knows when."
Johnson has been able to grow his basketball relationships within the state with help from his assistants, especially former DeLaSalle coach Dave Thorson.
Among the best local recruiters for the Gophers have also been their six in-state players, most notably transfers Jamison Battle from DeLaSalle, Parker Fox from Mahtomedi and Sean Sutherlin from Irondale.
"I know this is a cool time for those guys to play in front of friends and family at a Division I Big Ten school in your state," Johnson added. "They have a lot of pride in that. That's cool to see. It trickles down not to just guys who are from here."
Faces of the program
Not since John Kundla and Eric Magdanz in 1962-63 have the Gophers head coach and leading scorer both been from Minnesota in men's basketball, which is true now with Johnson and Battle.
Johnson's success as a player at DeLaSalle, where he played under Thorson, and with the Gophers helped him have an instant connection with local high school coaches when he returned home to join Richard Pitino's staff in 2013. Johnson helped Pitino land future NBA players Amir Coffey (Hopkins) and Daniel Oturu (Cretin-Derham Hall), who still talk about how staying home helped them.
"You kind of carry yourself in a way that being here is cool and you like it," Johnson said. "People who aren't from here even feel that energy and that becomes contagious."
Battle's rise to stardom in maroon and gold has been vital to the Gophers' early success. The 6-7 sophomore is grateful he decided to transfer home from George Washington to showcase his talent in front of his family, including sister Amaya Battle, a Hopkins senior guard and future Gophers player for Lindsay Whalen.
"It's just something you can't beat," Battle said after leading the Gophers with 23 points against Green Bay. "You can't beat being home. You can't beat playing basketball in front of your home state, in front of your family. It's a blessing."
Growing up Gophers fans
As no-star recruits with zero Division I offers out of high school, Fox and Sutherlin never expected their college careers would end in the Big Ten and with the Gophers.
But the former Minnesota Heat AAU teammates earned scholarships as transfers and are profiting off representing their home state at the U with the NCAA's new name, image and likeness rules.
Fox, a bouncy 6-8 Division II All-America from Northern State in South Dakota, is able to dunk and shoot before games, but he isn't cleared by the Gophers to play after offseason knee surgery. Sutherlin, who transferred from New Hampshire, has been the team's biggest scorer off the bench. He brings energy to his new team, and the Barn's crowd.
"I always watched Gophers games growing up," said Sutherlin, who is soon playing host to a youth basketball camp at Irondale. "I came to games when I was young, and the atmosphere has always been great. It's crazy. My family has been able to come to almost every game. That's huge for my family and my nephews to see me as a role model and someone to look up to."
Homegrown talent will continue to come into the Gophers program next season. Park Center's Braeden Carrington, Park of Cottage Grove's Pharrel Payne and former Osseo standout Joshua Ola-Joseph signed in Johnson's 2022 early recruiting class in November.
Carrington and Payne have attended most Gophers home games this season. Joining them Wednesday was Totino-Grace four-star 2023 guard Taison Chatman.
On Twitter earlier this month, Battle, Fox and Sutherlin posed for a picture in the Gophers locker room with "Homegrown" shirts to show their support for a brand representing the state.
After the 72-56 victory over Green Bay, Homegrown's creator thanked Ben Johnson's family for wearing his gear to show the new Gophers coach support the day before his 41st birthday.
"I've been able to follow Ben Johnson's career and see him blossom," said Johnathan Johnson, who is not related. "I'm very proud of my home state. I just want to celebrate the guys who decided to stay home or come back."