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On a busy day of changes for the Gophers men’s basketball team, Richard Pitino landed one potential new starter Thursday and saw a starter from 2019-20 leave the program.

Starting guard Payton Willis announced that he is transferring, but the Gophers brought 6-8 transfer Brandon Johnson into the fold from Western Michigan.

Johnson gives the Gophers the second piece of what could be their starting frontcourt next season, joining 7-foot center Liam Robbins, who announced his transfer from Drake on Sunday.

Both those moves could help the Gophers replace Daniel Oturu, a dominant force inside who left for the NBA draft.

“Making this decision was tough, because every team on my list was I felt like a great fit for me. It just felt like Minnesota was the best fit out of everybody.”
Brandon Johnson

Johnson will be immediately eligible to play as a graduate transfer. Robbins, a junior next season, would have to sit out one season under current NCAA transfer rules but is seeking a waiver to play right away, too.

“With guys who are on the team and the pieces that were added, it feels like we can make an NCAA tournament run,” Johnson said in a phone interview.

At guard, without Willis, the Gophers still have two primary starting options in Gabe Kalscheur and Marcus Carr, who declared for the NBA draft but is expected to return.

Willis, who arrived in 2018 after two seasons at Vanderbilt, was often the fourth option in his only season with the Gophers (he sat out in 2018-19). He averaged 8.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists and ranked second on the team with 57 threes.

Johnson, a 220-pound junior, averaged 15.4 points and 8.1 rebounds per game this season for Western Michigan. The Chicago native could replace graduating senior Alihan Demir as the Gophers’ starting power forward.

“I knew guys who went to Illinois, so I pretty much idolized the Big Ten,” Johnson said. “Now that I have a chance to showcase my talent to the best of my ability and play in the Big Ten, I’m just excited.”

The transfer portal grew to more than 600 players this week, giving rebuilding teams like the Gophers options. Pitino needed someone versatile offensively with the physical toughness to play the grind-it-out style of the Big Ten. Johnson believes he definitely fits that mold.

“Making this decision was tough, because every team on my list was I felt like a great fit for me,” Johnson said. “It just felt like Minnesota was the best fit out of everybody.

“[Pitino] told me, he basically doesn’t want my game to change. Everything that I did last year, he wants to build on that.”

Johnson, who also considered Dayton, Connecticut and Cincinnati, saw his production skyrocket at the end of the season.

In his last 11 games at Western Michigan, he averaged 17 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and shot 79% from the foul line (50-for-63) and 60% from three-point range (9-for-15). He had four 20-point games and three double-doubles during that stretch, including a career-high 29 points vs. Ball State.

“I feel like I’m a good two-way player,” Johnson said. “Regardless if I’m scoring or if my shot isn’t falling one night, I can still impact the game enough in order for my team to get a win.”

In his first three years of high school, Johnson played at Thornton Fractional South in Lansing, Ill., but he finished his career at Thea Bowman Leadership Academy in Gary, Ind.

He had a chip on his shoulder after high-major schools from the Big Ten and Big East showed interest but failed to offer him scholarships. He was motivated again to come back strong after missing the 2018-19 season at Western Michigan because of a knee injury.

“My goal was to prove everybody wrong who doubted me,” Johnson said. “I felt like I accomplished that, and I still have a lot to prove.”

The Gophers had one scholarship available heading into Thursday, and Johnson grabbed it.

But another one opened up with Willis’ departure. Another starting role is up for grabs for the Gophers, so they’ll continue to recruit for next season this spring, with Hopkins four-star senior Kerwin Walton and Rice sophomore transfer Drew Peterson the most notable possibilities.