As Ben Johnson gauged the emotions of his Gophers men's basketball team after a disappointing ending to the Missouri game last week, he noticed Dawson Garcia took the loss harder than anyone else.
"He hurt the next day," Johnson said. "That tells you something."
There aren't many players in the Big Ten having a better start to the season than Garcia, but the 6-11 junior hasn't been caught up in gaudy numbers in his second year with the Gophers.
Garcia is averaging career-highs in points (18.8), rebounds (8.8), blocks (1.5) and free-throw shooting (90.6%), but there are two numbers he cares about more than anything: wins and losses.
Last Thursday's blown 20-point lead in a two-point loss to Missouri motivated Garcia to lead the U in a bounce-back 67-53 win Saturday vs. South Carolina Upstate. The Gophers (3-1) hope to continue that momentum into Thanksgiving, playing well Tuesday night against Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Williams Arena.
"He doesn't get caught up in scoring. He doesn't get caught up in numbers," Johnson said about Garcia, whom he challenged to become a vocal leader. "All that kid wants to do is win. Win for himself. But he also wants to win for the program. He wants nothing more than for this place to be packed and for us to be successful."
A former McDonald's All-America at Prior Lake, Garcia's Marquette team finished 13-14 in his freshman year in 2020-21. Golden Eagles coach Steve Wojciechowski was fired after the season.
He transferred to North Carolina two years ago, and the Tar Heels were 12-6 when he had to leave the team for personal reasons with his family ailing during the pandemic. He was not part of the UNC team that eventually made a run to the NCAA title game.
After the Gophers finished 9-22 in Garcia's first year after coming home, he's been eager to lead the program to a higher level. The preseason All-Big Ten forward entered this season in the best shape of his career, which has contributed to his consistent play on the floor.
"I'm in a lot better shape this year to start the season," Garcia said. "That's a big testament to the work we put in as a team in the offseason. We had a winner's week, and I really think that helped me out tremendously."
Winner's week was something Johnson implemented for the first time in September before the start of official practice to challenge his players mentally and physically. It included waking up for workouts at 5 a.m.
"The last night we stayed over [at Williams Arena]," Parker Fox said. "Dawson slept on his blow-up mattress deflated. He was just sleeping on the ground at halfcourt."
Improved conditioning made the Gophers prepared to play at a faster pace. And that up-tempo style has also been the ideal system to allow Garcia to maximize his all-around game.
"Running up and down the floor and playing with pace with this group has been a lot of fun," said Garcia, who resembles a nearly 7-foot guard being able to finish off the dribble, facilitate and shoot from three.
"I've never been able to play with a guy like Dawson who can score at will and pass the ball," Mike Mitchell Jr. said. "It makes my job a lot easier, and it opens up the floor for me to be able to shoot."
The Gophers seem to be at their best when Garcia's versatility complements the intimidating physical inside presence of 6-9 sophomore Pharrel Payne. Payne missed two games this season with a foot injury, but he had a team-high four blocks Saturday vs. USC Upstate. Garcia led the team with 14 points and six rebounds to go with two blocks.
Seeing Garcia's strong start to the season has given Payne and the Gophers even more confidence to know their ceiling is much higher moving forward compared to a year ago.
"Dawson wasn't just helping us on offense giving us points," Payne said. "On the defensive side, he was talking and making his presence known. I felt like it really helps us as a team."