A college basketball game between a Big Ten team and a Western Athletic Conference team on paper might seem more like David vs. Goliath than a potentially evenly matched affair.
But Ben Johnson’s Gophers basketball team is already on upset alert playing California Baptist in Monday’s SoCal Challenge opener in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.
“Just got to come to play,” Gophers guard and Morehead State transfer Ta’Lon Cooper said. “For everybody at the mid-major level, they’re trying to come and take your spot. They feel like ‘I should be there.'”
Upsets once more exclusive for the NCAA tournament bracket busters appear to be popping up frequently in college hoops early this season.
The Gophers (3-1) could be considered vulnerable after losing by 16 points against DePaul at home playing without All-Big Ten preseason forward Jamison Battle, but he could make his season debut Monday after recovering from foot surgery.
“He’ll be a game-time decision,” Johnson said. “If he does go, he’ll be on restricted minutes for the first couple games.”
The Lancers (3-1), who were picked to finish fifth in the WAC, joined the upset party recently with a convincing 73-64 win over Washington on Thursday. It was their first win against the Pac-12 in the team’s history.
“I’ve known about that program for a couple years now,” Johnson said. “They got good talent. They got skilled players. They got a program that really is on the up.”
Cal Baptist is a small, private Christian university in Riverside, Calif., which made the jump from Division II in 2018. This will be the program’s first season eligible to play in the NCAA Division I tournament.
The Gophers, in Year 2 under Johnson, have been relying heavily on transfers Dawson Garcia and Ta’Lon Cooper. The rest of the production is spread among mostly four freshmen, resulting in inconsistent play.
“You’re just trying to balance that early until we get guys back,” Johnson said. “Being forced to do that, we might be playing with inexperience and weird rotations, but you just know on the back end it’s going to pay out.”
Cal Baptist coach Rick Croy is led by last season’s WAC freshman of the year and Australian guard Taran Armstrong and Loyola Marymount transfer Joe Quintana, who combined for 35 points against Washington.
An even bigger challenge for the Gophers, literally, could be matching up with the Lancers’ frontcourt of 6-9, 240-pound Utah transfer Riley Battin and 7-foot, 255-pound Georgetown transfer Tim Ighoefe, who had 11 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks Thursday.
This isn’t the most physical Gophers team in recent years. Through Thursday’s games, they ranked last in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (minus-2.3) and giving up 42 offensive rebounds combined in the past two games.
The winner of Monday’s game will face Southern Illinois or UNLV. Win or lose, the Gophers will face another opponent Wednesday that has already pulled off an upset. SIU defeated Oklahoma State 61-60 on the road. And the Rebels blew out No. 22 Dayton.
A year ago, Johnson found out a lot about the Gophers when they weren’t taken seriously until they won the Asheville Championship in North Carolina by beating Princeton and Western Kentucky.
Those weren’t major conference opponents but respectable programs. That gave the Gophers the confidence to start the season 10-1, including road wins at Pittsburgh, Mississippi State and Michigan to begin the season.
The way the Gophers handle a sneaky-tough two games in the SoCal Challenge before Thanksgiving could determine how much success they have during the most grueling early stretch. They’ll play four straight games against major conference opponents: at Virginia Tech, at Purdue, and Michigan and Mississippi State at home.
The ability to play tough and physical against teams with Big Ten-caliber size is something Johnson said will give the Gophers confidence going into conference play.
“The earlier we can figure out this is who we are and win games like that it will carry us,” Johnson said. “Looking forward to this week.”