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On a spring afternoon in northeast Minneapolis, Lu'Cye Patterson sat in a weight room surrounded wall-to-wall with pictures of himself and fellow Minnesota Prep Academy alums now at the Division I level.

His father co-founded the Minneapolis prep school. Patterson helped put it on the basketball map.

The 6-2, 210-pound fifth-year senior was never recruited by the Gophers out of high school, but after stops at Missouri State and Charlotte, he transferred home for his final college season.

"It was kind of like a no-brainer for me to spend my last year here," Patterson said. "And help get Minnesota back to where it's supposed to be."

The Gophers brought more excitement to their raised floor with last season's 19-win NIT team, but a roster exodus put the responsibility on newcomers such as Patterson and a few returners to keep the momentum going.

Patterson talked to the U's leading scorer — Dawson Garcia, a fellow Minnesotan — about building the home state Big Ten program into a contender. Patterson also felt a strong connection to fourth-year Gophers coach Ben Johnson, a family friend going way back.

"He's been a friend for 35-plus years," Patterson's father, Lucas, said of growing up with Johnson in Minneapolis. "We had been together for a long time playing on the same [youth] teams and all of that."

Even before the Gophers coach saw a familiar name in the transfer portal, Johnson witnessed the young Patterson's journey and growth from grade school through four years of college.

"He's a kid who I've known almost his entire life having grown up with his dad," Johnson said. "I just really love his skill and IQ. Being a coach's kid, to get a guy with his feel and skill level coming off a good year is only going to help our program and what we're trying to do."

Career full circle

After he visited the Gophers in April, Patterson's phone kept buzzing with messages from other programs. Getting to play at Williams Arena, though, meant his career would come full circle. It was an easy decision.

"I definitely had a lot of schools texting from the highest level," Patterson said. "But I knew the reason I hit the portal. It was to come home and play in front of my family."

They watched him take off on the Minnesota basketball scene in 2018, leading Brooklyn Center as a sophomore to the school's first state tournament in 35 years. From there, he transferred to Minnesota Prep Academy to play a tougher national prep schedule for his last two years of high school.

Patterson's father and Donnell Bratton, a pastor in St. Paul, co-founded Minnesota Prep six years ago out of Jerry Gamble Boys & Girls Club in north Minneapolis. The online-based school has 13 students now — just enough for one basketball team — and shares facilities at Mill City Church in northeast Minneapolis.

More than a dozen former players from Minnesota Prep will be at Division I schools, including Antonio Chol (Rutgers), Tavion Banks (Drake), D.J. Jefferson (Tennessee, Longwood) and Brenden Moss (Kent State).

Many college-preparatory schools field teams that exist outside the traditional high school system. The competition level can be much tougher. So is the lifestyle. Rarely is time not spent studying, training and traveling to out-of-state tournaments. Patterson's brother, Jalyn, is a senior now at Minnesota Prep.

"It already had me ready for college," Lu'Cye Patterson said. "The traveling, the going to school online, the competition. Some of these guys I played [against] are even in the NBA now."

Point guard needs

The 19-win Gophers caught Patterson's eye when they needed another point guard to replace Big Ten assist leader Elijah Hawkins, who transferred to Texas Tech this spring.

Joining returning starter Mike Mitchell Jr., Patterson opens summer practice this month as one of four newcomers for the Gophers in the backcourt. That also includes transfers Brennan Rigsby (Oregon), Caleb Williams (Macalester) and Femi Odukale (New Mexico State) and top high school recruit Isaac Asuma.

"I like the way Ben Johnson lets his guards play," Patterson said. "I feel like he gives his guards a lot of freedom to make mistakes, play their game and contribute to the team to help them win."

Patterson is more of a score-first floor leader. He developed that offensive confidence after 82 career starts, including 56 games at Charlotte the past two seasons in the American Athletic Conference.

Earning all-league second-team honors last season, Patterson had eight games of 20 points or more, highlighted by a 27-point effort in a regular season-ending win over East Carolina. He also had 16 points in an upset of nationally ranked Florida Atlantic and 14 points against Duke last season.

Patterson's scoring average improved each year in college from 2.5 points his first season at Missouri State to a team-best 14.6 points per game in 31 games last season for Charlotte. He shot just 12.5% from three-point range as a freshman but then 37% combined the past two seasons.

"He's just a player who has just grinded from the start," Johnson said. "Players who have a passion for it, who have great work ethic and talent find a way [to succeed] over time."

Despite dealing with a bad ankle, Patterson put up career numbers last season and feels healthier than ever after losing 20 pounds. After focusing more on his body, he's ready to take another step with his game.

"A lot of kids get recruited off their physical gifts, but they haven't been through the gantlet of developing," Lucas Patterson said. "Lu'Cye has been training and been able to sharpen his sword. He's ready to contribute here right out of the gate."