A year ago, Ben Johnson's Gophers walked off Ohio State's court in Columbus celebrating their first conference victory. That moment was one of the only highlights during a rough two-win Big Ten season.
A different Gophers team arrives Sunday at the Buckeyes' Value City Arena to open early Big Ten play. Three starters from the squad that pulled off the upset are gone, including Jamison Battle, who plays on the opposing side now.
"This game can't mean more to them," Johnson said. "For whatever reason. We've got to go in there with as much at stake as they do."
Ohio State and Minnesota had the two worst records in the Big Ten during the 2022-23 season, but only one of them has shown it's a much better team so far this year.
The Buckeyes (6-1) are a borderline Top 25 team this week. Since dropping a game to nationally ranked Texas A&M, they have five straight wins, including against No. 17 Alabama. Meanwhile, the Gophers (5-2) have suffered losses to the two best opponents on their nonconference schedule, falling to Missouri and San Francisco.
"We've got a lot to prove," Johnson said. "We've got to kind of have that hunter's mentality."
No player was hunted more than Dawson Garcia the last time these two teams met on Jan. 12, but the 6-11 forward finished with a career-high 28 points in the shocking 70-67 road victory.
The Gophers were the only winless team in conference play at the time and 15-point underdogs against the Buckeyes, but they pulled off their first win in Columbus since 2020.
Garcia's hoping for a better road effort from his team than in the 18-point loss against San Francisco at the Golden State Warriors' Chase Center on Sunday.
"There's a lot that each and every one of us can improve upon," Garcia said. "That was our first time on the road. All we've got are each other. It's about playing together and staying connected. Coach always says we can bend but never break."
It might be a little discouraging for Minnesota fans to see Battle wearing Ohio State scarlet and gray Sunday. The former DeLaSalle standout's scoring average is the same as last season at 12.4 points. But he's shooting a career-best 38.6% from three. Battle had 21 points with five threes to help the Buckeyes defeat Santa Clara to win the Emerald Coast Classic title in Florida.
"The biggest thing is, I wanted to win and make the [NCAA] tournament," Battle said at Big Ten media day at Target Center about transferring. "That's what the main thing was. Getting to a program that could help me do that. Ohio State last year, you look at it as an anomaly. That was the first time Coach [Chris] Holtmann had not been to the tournament."
With a deeper team led by guards Bruce Thornton and Roddy Gayle Jr., Holtmann appears to have the Buckeyes back on track this season. But the Gophers are still searching for a winning identity in Johnson's third season.
Pharrel Payne, who had 17 points in Thursday's 97-64 win vs. New Orleans, seems to be ready to replace Battle alongside Garcia in the frontcourt. Another significant factor to compete in the Big Ten, though, will be the performance of the U's new backcourt.
Newcomers Elijah Hawkins, Mike Mitchell Jr. and Cam Christie joined returner Braeden Carrington. They combined for just 20 points and 14 of the team's 18 turnovers in a loss to San Francisco. But they bounced back with 44 points, 21 assists and just five turnovers combined against New Orleans.
"It was a good confidence booster for us going into our first Big Ten game," said Hawkins, who had nine assists and one turnover Thursday. "I definitely feel like we can prove we're one of the best teams in the Big Ten."