After Gophers coach Ben Johnson introduced his 2023-24 men's basketball team to fans last week on campus, Parker Fox ended up taking over to emcee.
The 6-8 redshirt senior forward from Mahtomedi was a natural behind the microphone. He found different ways to be heard after knee injuries kept him from suiting up for the Gophers.
Fox and redshirt junior forward Isaiah Ihnen were both recently cleared for contact after missing the past two seasons. Their leadership will be important for Johnson as practice opens this week.
"Although they haven't been on the court, they've been in our program for two years," Johnson said. "They know how it's run and what it looks like. So they're able to help the new guys and younger guys along."
With practice officially starting Monday, here are five things to know about Johnson's Gophers:
For the first time since he took over as head coach in 2021, Johnson will be entering practice with a roster at full strength.
Fox and Ihnen kept the Gophers from being fully healthy after having summer knee surgeries a year ago. Aside from their absence, Gophers players missed 18 total games last season because of injury or illness.
Entering last season, former Gophers starter Jamison Battle and Braeden Carrington were also sidelined because of injuries.
Battle transferred to Ohio State, but Carrington is back healthy after missing eight games. So is scoring and rebounding leader Dawson Garcia, who missed five games.
Garcia ready to lead
After transferring home from North Carolina last year, Garcia became the U's go-to guy from the opening game, but he struggled staying healthy and embracing a leadership role.
This season, the 6-11 ex-Prior Lake standout should also feel more settled. He bounced around after high school from Marquette to North Carolina and Minnesota. This was the first time he spent a second summer in the same college program. He's much more comfortable being the face of the team.
But Garcia doesn't have to lead Johnson's team alone. He's one of seven upperclassmen, including a veteran backcourt and 6-11, 290-pound Washington State graduate transfer Jack Wilson in the paint.
Portal point guards
The Gophers struggled mightily with consistency in the backcourt last season. There were no returning point guards on the roster after Ta'Lon Cooper transferred to South Carolina, so Johnson's staff scoured the portal looking for help.
Pepperdine's Mike Mitchell Jr. and Howard's Elijah Hawkins ended up transferring to Minnesota. Hawkins and Mitchell have combined for 118 starts in their careers.
No other Big Ten team will have two guards on their roster who averaged 5.0 or more assists and shot 44% or better from three-point range last season. Hawkins and Mitchell did both at their previous stops.
Time to bring the Payne
The Big Ten can be too tough and physically demanding for most freshmen. Even for Pharrel Payne, who was bigger than most veteran posts at 6-9 and 255 pounds.
The Cottage Grove native, though, could be ready for a breakout sophomore season.
Payne went through growing pains battling some elite frontcourt players in the Big Ten, but he's entering this fall confident after gaining valuable experience. The same could be said for sophomore forward Joshua Ola-Joseph, who started 24 games.
It was hard for Gophers fans to focus on the recruit that they still had instead of the one they lost when five-star 7-footer Dennis Evans III was released from his letter of intent before arriving on campus.
But freshman guard Cameron Christie has been making a strong impression ever since joining the team this summer. The 6-6, 190-pound Illinois native has the size and shooting stroke to compete for major minutes. Also, don't be surprised if 6-8 redshirt freshman Kadyn Betts pushes for playing time on the wing.