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COLUMBUS, OHIO – The Gophers men's basketball team is about to kick off its Big Ten schedule with a game today at Ohio State. Here are three things to watch:

Battle tested

In Ben Johnson's first year with the Gophers two seasons ago, Jamison Battle was the face of the program.

The former DeLaSalle star was the Minnesota native that turned down bigger schools in the transfer portal to return home to help Johnson rebuild. He led the team in scoring (17.5) and rebounding (6.3) in 2021-22, including a 39-point game at Maryland.

Now Battle is playing for the Buckeyes against his former team in the Big Ten opener Sunday. The 6-7 senior forward told the Gophers he wanted to play professionally, but Battle was able to get a better NIL opportunity and pursue an NCAA tournament bid with the Buckeyes.

Entering Sunday's matchup, Battle and the Gophers can't help but have personal feelings on the first game between them this season. They also play Feb. 22 at Williams Arena.

"You're never going to lose those relationships," Battle told local reporters this week. "We're brothers off the court, but then on the court, we're rivals. I think that's something that we're all looking forward to and I just can't wait to get out there and play the game. I'm feeling excited."

It's early in the college hoops season, but the Buckeyes (6-1) are listed as a No.8 seed in the NCAA tournament in ESPN bracket expert Joe Lunardi's latest projections on Nov. 28.

The Gophers (5-2) haven't made the NCAA tournament since 2019 under Richard Pitino. That was coming off an eight-win season. Johnson's hoping to make a similar turnaround after a 9-22 finish in 2022-23, but his team has a lot of work to do.

Ohio State has a win against No. 17 Alabama. The Gophers have the second-worst nonconference schedule ranking among major conference teams, per KenPom. They lost both of their toughest non-league games so far vs. Missouri and San Francisco, but there will be an opportunity for the Gophers to pick up a signature win Sunday.

Garcia's encore

Garcia's playing the best basketball of his college career, but there were glimpses of a potential breakout season in his first year with the Gophers.

Last January, the 6-11 former Prior Lake star had a career-high 28 points on 9-for-15 shooting, to go with nine rebounds in a 70-67 win at Ohio State. That performance eclipsed his 26-point game vs. Purdue when he played for North Carolina in 2021-22.

"The way Dawson played was really reminiscent of a good player," Battle said this week. "That's the head of the snake who we have to stop."

Garcia led the Gophers in scoring and rebounding last season, but he's averaging career-best numbers with 18.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.4 blocks, 49.4% field goal shooting and 85.4% shooting on free throws through seven games.

The All-Big Ten preseason forward has been determined to turn his home state Big Ten program into a winner. There's no better opportunity to prove the Gophers are ready to turn things around than another upset Sunday in Columbus.

In Thursday's 97-64 win against New Orleans, Garcia opened with 11 of his 15 points in the first half and tied a career-high with three blocks in just 18 minutes with reserves getting to play in the second half.

Dunking Gophers

After suffering an 18-point loss last Sunday at San Francisco, the Gophers treated the home crowd to an exciting blowout win Thursday against New Orleans at Williams Arena.

The Gophers shot 59.4% from the field, which was their highest field goal shooting in a game since 2018. A big reason for the successful shooting night was high-percentage shots, including five dunks.

Pharrel Payne and Parker Fox had all of the U's slams against New Orleans, but the above-the-rim play that went viral didn't count. Fox's offensive rebound dunk over a defender was called an offensive foul to his surprise.

On the season, Joshua Ola-Joseph leads the team with 11 dunks, which ranks fifth among Big Ten players and first among players under 6-8. Payne is next with seven dunks, followed by Fox with four. Minnesota has 25 dunks as a team so far this year.

Ohio State has 24 dunks this season led by Felix Okpara (11), Zed Key (seven), and Roddy Gayle (five).


Time: 5:30 p.m. CT, Sunday. Where: Value City Arena. Line: Gophers 12.5-point underdogs. Series: The Gophers trail the all-time series with Ohio State 55-92, but they won the last meeting 70-67 on the road on Jan. 12, 2023. TV: Big Ten Network. Online/Live video: Big Ten plus. Radio: 103.5 FM.



Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Elijah Hawkins 5-11 Jr. 7.4

G – Braeden Carrington 6-4 So. 6.1

F – Joshua Ola-Joseph 6-7 So. 9.0

F – Isaiah Ihnen 6-9 Jr. 6.7

F – Dawson Garcia 6-11 Jr. 18.3

Key reserves – Cam Christie, G, 6-6, Fr., 11.0 ppg; Mike Mitchell Jr., G, 6-2, Jr. 9.3 ppg; Pharrel Payne, F, 6-9, So., 10.0 ppg; Parker Fox, F, 6-8, Sr., 3.4 ppg; Jack Wilson, C, 6-11, Sr., 2.3 ppg.

Coach: Ben Johnson 27-41 record (third season)

Notable: The Gophers are playing faster this season, but that pace has come at a cost. They're averaging 14 fast-break points compared to four points per game average in transition last season. They've become the most turnover prone team in the Big Ten at 14.3 per game, which included a season-high 18 turnovers on Nov. 26 vs. San Francisco. But the Gophers had just two turnovers in the first half (12 total) in Thursday's win vs. New Orleans before clearing their bench midway through the second half.


Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Bruce Thornton 6-2 So. 18.3

G – Roddy Gayle Jr. 6-4 So. 14.4

G – Evan Mahaffey 6-6 So. 3.0

F – Jamison Battle 6-7 Sr. 12.4

C – Felix Okpara 6-11 So. 6.1

Key reserves – Dale Bonner, G, 6-2, Sr., 6.9 ppg; Zed Key, F, 6-8, Sr., 10.4 ppg; Devin Royal, F, 6-6, Fr., 2.9 ppg; Taison Chatman, G, 6-4, Fr., 0.0 ppg.

Coach: Chris Holtmann 243-161 (13th season)

Notable: The Buckeyes defeated Central Michigan 88-61 Saturday to record their fifth straight victory since falling to Texas A&M by seven points on Nov. 10. Sophomores Bruce Thornton and Roddy Gayle Jr. are playing as well as any backcourt in the Big Ten by averaging nearly 33 points and nine assists per game. In the last three games, Thornton had 25 points vs. Central Michigan and 29 points against Alabama. Last season, Thornton had 10 points on 4-for-10 shooting in the loss to the Gophers ... Former Totino-Grace star Taison Chatman, who was the No. 1 senior in Minnesota's 2023 class, has played three games this season coming off knee surgery to open the season.

Fuller's score prediction (5-2): Ohio State 76, Gophers 67.