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Grad transfer Brandon Johnson close to joining Gophers basketball team

Of the newcomers still yet to arrive on campus, Brandon Johnson might be the most important addition for the Gophers next season.

The 6-foot-8, 220-pound former Western Michigan standout projects to be a starting forward and will be immediately eligible to play once he graduates this summer. 

Johnson understands what his role could be for Richard Pitino’s team. Still at home in Chicago, he’s been focused on finishing his degree online.

In a Q&A with the Star Tribune this week, Johnson gave updates on summer school and what he has been doing this offseason to prepare himself to be an impact player in the Big Ten.

Q: How close are you to being done with your classes to graduate?

A: I’m in the process of finishing up my last semester right now. I’m basically finished. I only have a week and a half left. After I get my final grades and everything, I will head down that way.

Q: Do you feel safe joining the Gophers during a time when there is so much uncertainty during the pandemic?

A: During this time for me I’ve acquired the basic things to do and how to keep myself safe. Everything I’m seeing with the guys down there I’ve been checking with them on the precautions. How they’re getting tested when they get down there. Even if they get a negative test result, they force them to quarantine. I definitely feel comfortable going down there.

Q: What have you been working on basketball-wise this summer in Chicago?
My old AAU coach sets up times for me to get in the gym and the weight room. I’ve been pretty much doing that the past couple months to stay in shape and keep a feel for the game. I’ve added new stuff to my game as well. I’ve basically been focusing on my ballhandling and perimeter work. I didn’t do bad in those areas last year, but my numbers could have been improved. My three-point percentage and turnover ratio could’ve been better. I really wanted to work on everything to bring down the negative things in my game and build up all the positive.

Q: Pitino’s offense is set up for the frontcourt players to be able to stretch the floor. Did that make the Gophers attractive for you?

A: Absolutely. My first couple years at Western, I actually wasn’t able to shoot the ball at all. Our coach didn’t like bigs shooting on the perimeter. He felt like they should be by the rim for offensive rebounding and things like that. Later in my career there, I proved in summer workouts that I could shoot. They saw me working with my assistant coaches. They noticed I started to become a capable shooter from the outside. Then they gave me a little freedom to do that this year.

Q: Playing in the Big Ten is a big step up from the Mid-American Conference. Are you prepared for that transition?
A: When we played Michigan State last season, I was injured during the game. But I still got a feel for how the Big Ten was by playing them. I understand that there is a change of pace from the Big Ten to the MAC. I feel like I’ll be ready for that transition. It was definitely tough to stay in shape during the quarantine. I bought a 40-pound weight jacket. And I was doing curls with that. I was improvising trying to do anything to stay in shape. I was running sprints in my backyard to keep my cardio up. Whatever it takes to stay at the level I was. Once I get there [in Minnesota], I want to get to a better level. That's my goal.

Q: How excited are you that Marcus Carr announced he was returning to the Gophers and removed his name from the NBA Draft?
I text him and have talked to him on multiple occasions. We’ve talked on zoom calls and everything. I haven’t had a chance to see him play in person. I’ve been watching games from last season of the guys who have returned. I just wanted to get a feel for how they play and their tendencies. What do they like to do? And to see if I can help them with my game in a certain way.

Q: What did you like when watching Carr’s games?
His court vision is great. He has a great feel for the game with his teammates in any type of situation, especially with pick and rolls and pick and pops. His court vision was really good in transition. I watched the game when they played Iowa. He had a few passes in transition that I’m not typically used to seeing from guards I played with.

Q: The Gophers are still waiting on the NCAA to sign off on waivers for Utah transfer Both Gach and Drake transfer Liam Robbins. How would the 7-footer Robbins especially help you in the frontcourt?

A: Just playing some center the past few years at 6-8 was definitely a difficult transition from what I did in high school. Just having someone I know who is playing who is a true center would be great. I did my research on him and watched [games] of him playing at Drake. I think he was averaging three blocks a game. He’s someone who can impact shots. I know myself personally I like to impact shots. It was definitely a necessity for my team for me to do. I know with both of us working together it would be tough for teams to score in the paint on us. We would have so much length on the defensive end. 

No non-conference college hoops? That's an option, Pitino says

The Big Ten was the first major conference to announce earlier this month that only league games would be played this season in fall sports during the pandemic.

College football is slowly saying goodbye to nonconference play. Is college basketball next in line?

“Yeah that certainly is an option,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino told the Star Tribune recently. “Everybody has been talking about it. It’s been good for me in a sense, because I sometimes think about the future too much. We have no idea.”

The Gophers 2020-21 men’s basketball nonconference schedule hasn’t been released yet. Typically by August, there already would be league opponents to look at.

Pitino’s team is opening the season Nov. 11 vs. Albany at Williams Arena.

Other home games in November include Kent State, Long Island and Green Bay. They are scheduled to open the Hall of Fame Tip-Off on Nov. 21 against Central Florida at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. The HOF Tip-Off's second game would be Nov. 22 either against Rhode Island or Marquette.

In December, the Gophers are playing in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge (no opponent announced) on the road. They also have home games vs. Mississippi State, Fort Wayne, North Dakota and likely St. Louis (game still being finalized). Two early December conference games also haven’t been announced by the Big Ten. The uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 is a good reason for waiting to release the schedule.

“The obvious thing is figure out what’s going on in the fall, especially with football,” Pitino said. “That’s the most pressing thing. Obviously because we don’t start until the winter. College sports is on a different level than pro sports. It’s a totally different dynamic. We can’t create these bubbles like the NBA and NHL are doing. The NBA has shown that it’s working. But there is a different dynamic when you have 35,000 students on campus. The most important thing is the wellbeing of the student-athletes.”

The Division I oversight committee discussed this week how evaluation tools such as the NET and RPI “become less reliable when conferences play league-only schedules.” The NCAA tournament selection committee emphasizes that games in November and December count just as much as February and March. What happens if that March Madness resumes are limited to league games?

“I don’t know what the answer is,” Pitino said. “We all can sit around and have theories about pushing it back and doing only conference games. We all want football. We all want basketball. But we just don’t know. That’s the scary part of it all. My singular focus right now is getting the guys on campus better and continue improving as a program.”

In their second week of summer practice, the Gophers still don't have their full roster on campus. Starting point guard Marcus Carr, top incoming freshman Jamal Mashburn Jr., graduate transfer Brandon Johnson and Turkish guard David Mutaf have still not arrived. Pitino told them being with the team is "optional" right now. 

Hall of Famer Rick Pitino tweeted this month that he preferred the season be pushed back to January and only play league games. “Buy some more time for a vaccine and to get things under control,” the former Louisville and first-year Iona coach wrote. “Although I can’t wait to be back on the sidelines, the health of my players and staff is what’s really important.”

Pitino agreed with his father on that last point. The No. 1 priority is staying healthy. So the Gophers are focusing on what they can control right now, which is being safe and getting better while on campus.

“I don’t know what’s coming in the future,” Pitino said. “I know I’m excited to coach the team and I want to get back to competing. But the most important thing is your health.”

Gophers men's basketball 2020-21 nonconference schedule (not official yet)

Exhibition: Concordia-St. Paul

November games: Albany (Nov. 11 opener), Kent State, Long Island, Green Bay

November tournament: Hall of Fame Tip-Off vs. Central Florida on Nov. 21 and vs. winner of Marquette and Rhode Island on Nov. 22

December games: Big Ten/ACC Challenge opponent (road), Mississippi State, Ft. Wayne, North Dakota, St. Louis*, Early Big Ten games

* - Still being finalized