Ben Johnson loved having older guards last season with fifth-year senior Payton Willis and other graduate transfers, but the problem is they were one-and-done with no eligibility left for the Gophers.
When the Gophers second-year basketball coach looked to replace Willis and company, he did it this time with a mix of veterans and talented freshmen.
Morehead State transfer Ta’Lon Cooper will be the leader of an all-new U backcourt this season. His running mates are fellow transfer Taurus Samuels and freshmen Braeden Carrington and Jaden Henley.
“I think we can be really, really good,” said Samuels, who played three years at Dartmouth. “I think a lot of guys can mix and match at different positions. Coach Johnson does a great job of putting everybody in position to be successful.”
Cooper, a 6-4, 190-pound Michigan native, watched game video of Willis, who averaged 15.9 points and led the Big Ten in three-point shooting last season. They’re similar in size but Cooper hopes to fill Willis’ role in his own way.
“He could really score the ball,” Cooper said. “He just ran the team really well. I feel like that’s something I can do.”
Much different from a scorer’s mentality, Cooper is a pass-first point guard. He was one of the best facilitators in the country last season, ranking sixth in the nation with 5.9 assists per game. He averaged 9.4 points, but he had eight assists or more eight different times.
Cooper’s biggest advice to Carrington and Henley has been to “keep it simple” to limit mistakes. He should know after ranking 16th nationally last season with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.73.
A leadership presence from Cooper was evident this summer when he took on a mentorship role with the younger guards. Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball and a state champion from Park Center, Carrington said he needed that encouragement coming from a veteran.
“He got me more confident in my game,” Carrington said. “He’s a great passer and I love playing on his team in practice. He’s always finding me. I definitely want to become a [better] passer myself.”
Last year’s Gophers guards Willis, Luke Loewe, E.J. Stephens, and Sean Sutherlin played in 467 games, including 289 starts in their career, mostly at different schools.
Cooper and Samuels have combined to play 177 games with 104 starts, but the Gophers will need contributions from Carrington and Henley. What they lack in experience they make up for in talent.
Carrington was arguably the best high school three-point shooter in the state last season. Henley is the team’s tallest guard at 6-7 and has a 40-inch vertical.
Johnson said one of his starting guards would’ve been junior Isaiah Ihnen, who suffered a season-ending knee injury. So both Carrington and Henley could be competing for starting roles, alongside the already-established leadership trio of Cooper, Jamison Battle and Dawson Garcia.
Henley, a California native, also helped recruit his friend and 7-1 high school senior Dennis Evans, who committed to the U on Monday. Now another big boost for the Gophers would be if Henley can make an impact with Cooper and this new-look backcourt.
“Ta’Lon and Taurus have been putting us under their wing and helping us get adjusted,” Henley said. “I think we’re going to get thrown in the fire, so we got to be ready to go.”
The Gophers will face their first opponent Saturday, in a closed scrimmage against Colorado State at home. The Rams, coached by Roseville native Niko Medved, finished 25-6 last season after losing to Michigan in the NCAA tournament. But they lost former Breck star David Roddy, who was drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies.