Pharrel Payne made scoring in the post look so good in the Gophers' most recent win this season — two weeks ago — that they are still using some of his dunks in team videos on social media.
Dawson Garcia's last-second shot to beat Cal Baptist in overtime in that same game in California last month is the best highlight so far this season.
The Gophers (4-4, 0-1 Big Ten) have more frontcourt talent than they did last season, but three straight losses have revealed inconsistencies with an inside presence.
Last season's leading scorer Jamison Battle is showing signs of returning to form shooting the ball after a foot injury, but the timing couldn't be worse for coach Ben Johnson to still be in the development phase with his frontcourt.
The result Sunday was Purdue's 7-4 Zach Edey pounding the Gophers for 31 points and 22 rebounds in a Big Ten opening loss. Now Michigan's 7-1 Hunter Dickinson comes to town Thursday night at Williams Arena.
"We do need to be able to rely on him getting some post touches," Johnson said of Payne. "I don't necessarily go into the game worrying about how to scheme that up. But obviously Dawson and Pharrel being able to get touches on the block is important."
The 6-9, 255-pound Payne has shown significant potential this year. He's already the strongest and most physically imposing player on Minnesota's roster despite being a freshman.
In the 62-61 overtime win against Cal Baptist in the SoCal Challenge, Payne pounded his way to his first double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds. The following game, though, he had just two points on 1-for-2 shooting in 14 minutes in a loss to UNLV.
The Gophers established Payne inside in a 67-57 loss at Virginia Tech last week, so he produced a team-high 13 points and six rebounds. But he took just one shot with two points and one rebound in 18 minutes vs. Purdue.
"He's got unbelievable upside," Johnson said. "My challenge to him is not to be scared to be great right now. Some of it is being able to deliver him the ball in the post. Guards have to see if he's open, and we have to find a way to give it to him. And then part of it is on him. You've got to demand the ball."
Johnson said running the floor to get an early post position could allow Payne to be more involved in the offense. Staying on the floor by limiting turnovers and fouls can help as well.
Early in Sunday's loss at Purdue, the Cottage Grove native held his own physically against Edey, which included getting one of his season-high four blocks. But Payne ended up playing only six minutes in the second half.
Getting healthy could be the key for Garcia. The 6-11 North Carolina transfer missed several practices the past couple of weeks battling flu-like symptoms. He was held to 11 points combined on 5-for-17 shooting in losses to Virginia Tech and Purdue.
"He's getting back to before he was sick," Johnson said. "It takes those practice reps."
The immediate post challenges for the Gophers remain after Thursday against Dickinson, who is averaging 19.6 points and 9.1 rebounds. On Sunday, 6-11, 245-pound Tolu Smith (16 points and 10 rebounds per game) leads undefeated, No. 23 Mississippi State into a matchup at the Barn.
Sophomore 7-footer Treyton Thompson, who started the first seven games for the Gophers, is back after missing the Purdue game with an illness. Freshman forward Joshua Ola-Joseph, who started Sunday, showed promise with 10 points.
No Gophers player could benefit more from a solid post presence than Battle, who is beginning to look like the elite shooter he was before foot surgery sidelined him this year.
"If you've got guys inside who can get into the paint, the defense collapses," Battle said. "It opens up things for shooters like me."