On a Tuesday night in late February, Ben Johnson got hit with a bombshell of a phone call that no college basketball coach ever wants to hear in recruiting.
The Gophers' five-star center of the future, Dennis Evans, wanted out of his national letter of intent. Saying goodbye to the program's highest ranked recruit in 20 years was arguably the lowest point in Year 2 under Johnson.
The season saw the Gophers (8-21, 2-17 Big Ten) suffer through a 12-game losing streak. Entering Wednesday's Big Ten tournament opener vs. Nebraska in Chicago, the U finished last in conference play. It's the first time in program history the Gophers have finished last in the Big Ten in consecutive seasons.
"We'd all love to hit the lottery and be in a different position," Johnson told the Star Tribune the day the Evans news dropped. "The reality is in most instances that's not what happens. You've got to be OK going through the suck, if you're going to turn it into anything."
Johnson ended up granting Evans his release and was ready to move on without showing any panic.
The Big Ten's youngest coach at 42, Johnson believes he still has to project a bright future for himself and the program, even if frustrated fans feel the sky is falling.
When Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle announced Lindsay Whalen's departure as women's basketball coach last week, following her fifth season, the AD was asked about Johnson's status.
Coyle noted that Johnson is still in his second season but made clear the goal is to "get our basketball programs to compete at a high level."
That night, with the Whalen news still swirling, Coyle was at Williams Arena watching Johnson's team win its first Big Ten home game, 75-74 vs. Rutgers, with a buzzer-beater from Jamison Battle.
Johnson said Coyle "has my back."
"He's like me," Johnson added. "He's really competitive and he wants to win. He sees the growth and the development. He sees the path and trajectory of where we're going."
The season could end Wednesday, and then Johnson will face another big challenge with roster management. The Gophers are bracing for the departure of Battle to the pro ranks and starting point guard Ta'Lon Cooper possibly to the transfer portal.
How the roster will shape up around leading scorer and rebounder Dawson Garcia and some talented underclassmen for next season is uncertain. But Johnson expressed excitement this week, believing he'll have a core returning — finally.
On the recruiting front, Johnson still also has four-star guard Cameron Christie from Illinois in his 2023 class.
"This is almost like the second building stage," Johnson said. "First year were all the transfer portal guys. Second year we had only two guys returning. This will be the first year we have more than two guys coming back. So, you actually have got something to build on."
Peers show support
Following the Feb. 20 loss at Illinois, Johnson walked off the court masking frustration of another loss. Illinois coach Brad Underwood pulled him aside and noted that he turned the Illini's program around after setting the team record for most losses, when it went 12-21 in his second season.
"He said we were doing the right stuff," Johnson said. "He said it's kind of what it is when you're going through a transition period. It's not always pretty."
The Gophers had players miss 18 combined games this season due to injury or illness, which included their top two scorers Garcia and Battle accounting for half of those absences. Twice the Gophers were down to the Big Ten-minimum of seven players. They postponed the Illinois game after going on a five-day COVID-19 pause — and also dealt with cancellations vs. Alcorn State and Michigan State.
Health issues forced Johnson to rely more on freshmen than most programs. No other Big Ten team had three freshmen playing 20-plus minutes per game. The Gophers had four in their rotation with Joshua Ola-Joseph (22.2 minutes), Pharrel Payne (21.8) Jaden Henley (20.4), and Braeden Carrington (20.0).
"I think Ben's done a good job of getting some really good freshmen," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "[You need to] identify guys who fit your culture and your style of play and who want to be there. Those kids want to be there. They want to compete for that program and for him."
Northern Iowa's Ben Jacobson has been someone Johnson has leaned on for advice "a lot" in the last two seasons. Jacobson is in his 17th season as head coach and had Johnson on his staff as an assistant for four years.
"I just talk to him about staying the course," Johnson said. "He sees it. He talks about the development of all the players. Not getting away from what you know and not panicking."
Several current Big Ten coaches who were at the bottom of the conference learned from their mistakes and have seen their programs rise from the gutter.
Nebraska's Fred Hoiberg finished 14th in consecutive seasons. The Cornhuskers went 9-11 in the Big Ten this year even through injuries.
Northwestern's Chris Collins had the worst team in the Big Ten in 2018-19, but the Wildcats were runner-up this season. Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell was in last place in 2017-18, but his team is on pace for a third straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Johnson brought in a Big Ten-high 10 newcomers in his first year to finish 13-17 — and it wasn't any better record-wise this season with eight newcomers, including four starters. Like his mentor Jacobson said, Johnson had to stay calm when things got pretty rough.
"I have tremendous confidence in what we're doing here," Johnson said. "I know in time it will pay off. … This season has taught our players a lot, and it's taught me a lot."