Jim Souhan
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Over the next three weeks, the Gophers men's basketball team will try to prove it's worthy of an NCAA tournament bid.

They've already accomplished an important goal: They've improved. If that sounds like faint praise, remember all that was working against coach Ben Johnson and his program entering the season.

In Johnson's first season as a head coach, the Gophers finished 13-17, including 4-16 in the Big Ten. In his second season, his program regressed, finishing 9-22 and 2-17 in the conference. Given the spotty quality of play in modern college basketball, it's difficult to win just two games in any conference.

That failure was compounded by what could have been the two most meaningful moments of Johnson's brief tenure:

1. Five-star recruit Dennis Evans, a 7-foot center who could have transformed the Gophers' defense and rebounding, decommitted from the Gophers and signed with Louisville.

2. Jamison Battle, one of Johnson's best players, left the Gophers to play for Big Ten rival Ohio State, who will visit Williams Arena on Thursday night.

It doesn't matter that Evans has spent most of his freshman season injured or that Battle joined a program that is below the Gophers in the Big Ten standings and got its head coach fired last week. When you are coming off a 2-17 season, every paper cut feels like it was made by a samurai's katana.

When you are 2-17 and desirable players are sprinting away from your program, how could you possibly improve? How could you possibly recruit players capable of turning around the program?

We're finding out.

After their victory over Rutgers at the Barn on Sunday, the Gophers are 16-9 overall and 7-7 in the conference.

They have six Big Ten games remaining, and there is an obvious path to 11 conference victories, which should secure an NCAA tournament bid.

If Johnson can coax this team over that finish line, he should be in line for a contract extension because he has won under the most difficult of circumstances this season.

And he has done so by displaying coaching chops.

His team has gotten better during the course of the season. Several players have gotten markedly better.

Shooting guard Cam Christie was the "other" top recruit coming to the Gophers, after Evans. Christie looked like a typical uncertain freshman early in the season. Now he's the team's second-leading scorer, displaying beautiful form on his jump shot and enough savvy to allow him to handle the ball and lead the offense when necessary.

Christie looks like a star in the making.

Pharrel Payne turned in a breakthrough performance against Rutgers, with 21 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks. I always thought he could and should be one of the best players on this team, and it's a credit to Johnson and his staff that Payne is surging in February.

Braeden Carrington came into the program as a supposed sharpshooter. He has struggled with his shooting but has become a standout defender.

We've been hearing about Parker Fox's athletic ability for years. This season, he has channeled that talent into a grinder's role, providing defensive energy, running the court and becoming an emotional leader.

And credit Johnson for his under-the-radar recruiting of transfers. Mike Mitchell Jr. has been a quality shooter and combo guard. Elijah Hawkins leads the nation in assists. That probably doesn't get mentioned enough, so let's mention it again, as if trying to attract attention on social media: A GOPHER LEADS THE NATION IN ASSISTS.

Their contributions matter because Dawson Garcia stayed with the program and became its best player.

This is the essence of coaching — improving individuals in a way that benefits the team.

So here's the path to the NCAA tourney:

1. The Gophers need to win their three remaining home games, against Ohio State, Penn State and Indiana.

2. They need to win one of their three road games, against Nebraska, Illinois and Northwestern.

3. Then they need to look like a quality team during the Big Ten tournament.

A year ago, the Gophers were unwatchable and about to see their program-building plans implode.

That they're in the fight for a tournament bid is a testament to Johnson, his transfer guards and the players who decided to stick with a struggling program.