Before the season, Ben Johnson anticipated struggles for the Gophers men's basketball team during the first couple months unlike last year's 9-1 nonconference record.
Johnson has superior talent compared to his first year as Gophers coach, but the early growing pains have been apparent with a drastically younger roster this season.
The Gophers (4-2), who play Monday at Virginia Tech in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, suffered their second loss this season last week in the SoCal Challenge championship vs. UNLV.
Losses to older foes such as DePaul and UNLV were a reminder their youth is being exploited. Among 363 Division I teams, the Gophers rank 207th in experience, compared to last year's 21st nationally and second-oldest in the Big Ten, according to KenPom.com.
"I told our guys our inexperience and youth can't be an excuse," Johnson said. "We've got to find a way to solve the puzzle."
All-Big Ten preseason junior Jamison Battle returning last week from a foot injury helped the Gophers get older. But mistakes are still piling up. Their rotation consists of four freshmen, two sophomores and zero guards who played on the team last season.
Transfer Ta'Lon Cooper ranks second in the Big Ten and seventh in Division I basketball with 7.3 assists per game, but he's had only six games running Johnson's offense. His 19 turnovers (second-most in the Big Ten) stem from some poor decisions, but mostly being the only point guard and veteran playing major minutes (team-high 35.5) on the perimeter.
Freshmen guards Jaden Henley (26.2 minutes) and Braeden Carrington (23.7) are on the court with Cooper more often under heavy defensive pressure. Graduate transfer Taurus Samuels is only playing 12.5 minutes per game.
Carrington had 15 points and eight rebounds against UNLV, but he's adjusting to how to defend and get teammates involved consistently. Henley had a 16-point game vs. St. Francis Brooklyn, but he ranks third on the team with 16 turnovers.
How the backcourt evolves with the freshmen gaining experience is a critical piece with the Big Ten season opening Dec. 4 at Purdue, followed by home games vs. Michigan on Dec. 8 and Mississippi State on Dec. 11.
"Ben's really big on emphasizing that even though we're freshmen we can't be freshmen," Henley said. "We have to step up and take that bigger role. Once we're out there, no one really cares about us being a freshman. We got to play like juniors and seniors."
The freshmen combined for 40 points against St. Francis Brooklyn, including forwards Pharrel Payne and Joshua Ola-Joseph in double figures. Payne led the Gophers with 15 points and 13 rebounds in last Monday's 62-61 overtime win in the SoCal Challenge, but he followed it up with two points in 13 minutes vs. UNLV. Ola-Joseph has three points combined in the last two games.
Payne or Ola-Joseph providing an inside scoring presence could take pressure off the U's leading scorers Dawson Garcia and Battle, if the Gophers continue to trust playing through them at times. Payne has 17 turnovers this season, but he's gaining confidence to play through mistakes.
"Playing in those first few games, I'm the freshman who didn't want to make those mistakes," Payne said. "Now I'm able to go out there and freely play. Knowing the coach has trust in you goes a long way."
Johnson loses sleep some nights when he knows three or four freshmen have to be on the floor together sometimes for the Gophers this season, but he hopes going through early struggles can make them tougher down the road.
"There's going to be a lot to learn," Johnson said. "How you have to prepare and your mind-set going into the game to put yourself in position to be successful. You've got to go through it to understand fully what it takes at this level when you play good teams."