Is it too early to start thinking about Division I basketball at the University of Minnesota?
Yes, the Golden Gophers opened the season 4-0 on the football field, and Huntington Bank Stadium has been rocking.
But come November, historic Williams Arena, affectionately known as “The Barn,” should have sellout crowds as well watching the Gophers men’s and women’s teams.
Williams Arena, with its iconic raised floor, originally opened in 1928, before being remodeled in 1950. It seats 14,625.
In 2022, Popular Mechanics ranked Williams Arena the 11th-best venue in the country to watch a college basketball game with its “old-arena charm from floor to ceiling.”
So if you’ve never experienced a game at the “The Barn,” perhaps this is the year to go. There’s plenty of local talent on both Minnesota teams, including first-year Gophers Dawson Garcia of Savage and Mallory Heyer of Chaska.
Coach Ben Johnson’s men’s team has nine Minnesotans on the roster.
Former Hutchinson High School star Lindsay Whalen, who was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame back on Sept. 10, also has nine Minnesotans on the roster in what will be her fourth season coaching the Gopher women.
Whalen, who played 15 seasons in the WNBA, including her last nine with the Minnesota Lynx, helping the team win four WBNA titles, also led her hometown college team, the Gophers, to their only Final Four in program history back in 2004.
Meanwhile, Johnson is in his second season leading the Gopher men and he has nine sophomores or younger on the roster. The Gophers were 13-17 last year (4-14 in the Big Ten) and have had just two winning seasons in the last seven years.
Johnson met with the media Sept. 27 and said he’s “super excited about the crew that we have,” including what Garcia can bring to the team.
“Obviously, (Dawson) is very talented,” Johnson said. “I was at Xavier when he was at Marquette, so I know what he can do. I remember watching him in high school. It’s nice to have a guy who you can throw it inside and he can get you a bucket.
“But I think the best thing that he’s done, and it goes back to who he is as a guy, is his mindset,” Johnson continued. “I don’t care if we are in the weight room, if we are our conditioning, if we are in five on zero or if we are in live action up and down, he brings the juice and that warriors’ mentality to everything thing that he does.
“And that just translates... He’s going to get back to who he really is at the end of the day, which is a nuts and bolts, a warrior, blue collar, a guy that can score inside, in the mid-range and from three. He can do it all.”
The 6-foot-11 Garcia, a 2020 graduate of Prior Lake High School, left as the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer. He started his collegiate career at Marquette University, where he started 27 games for the Golden Eagles and averaged 13.0 points and 6.6 rebounds.
Garcia led all Big East freshmen in scoring and rebounding that season.
However, he used his one-time transfer after 2020-21 season to go to the University of North Carolina. He played in 16 games for the Tar Heels, averaging 9.0 points and 5.5 rebounds, but left the team midway through the season to come home to his family, as he had relatives dealing with COVID-19 issues.
This past summer, the NCAA granted Garcia a medical hardship waiver to transfer and play for the Gophers. He is also the second McDonald’s All-American to play for Minnesota since Kris Humphries.
Heyer was also a decorated scorer at Chaska. She finished with 2,289 points in her stellar Hawks’ career.
In 2021, she helped Chaska to the Class 4A state title. She played 129 varsity games for the Hawks with a career average of 17.7 points per game.
The 6-foot-1 forward was the Star Tribune’s Metro Player of the Year in her senior season, a three-time all-state selection and a four-time All-Metro West Conference pick. She was selected as the Metro West Player of the Year twice.
Why did Heyer choose Minnesota over other strong Division I programs — Iowa State, Utah, Iowa and Wisconsin — that were recruiting her?
“I chose the University of Minnesota because I wanted to represent and play for my home state,” she said. “I loved the campus, coaches, players, and everything that the University of Minnesota has to offer both academically and athletically.
“I wanted to play in a competitive conference and the Big 10 offers that. I also chose Minnesota because I wanted to be a part of something special under the leadership of coach Whalen.”
The women’s team had a 8-13 record under Whalen last year, but won 21 games in her first season and 16 in her second. The last time the Gophers made the NCAA tournament was in 2018.
The men’s team’s last NCAA appearance was in 2019.