Dawson Garcia and Ta’Lon Cooper were visiting the Gophers men’s basketball team at the same time last week, but it was clear who was the big man on campus — literally.
Garcia, a 6-11 North Carolina transfer and former Prior Lake star, stole the spotlight when he committed while both players were with Ben Johnson and his coaching staff.
Cooper, a point guard from Morehead State, wasn’t jealous of the attention, though. Garcia’s announcement made him excited to join the Gophers as well. The two sophomore transfers officially signed on Tuesday.
“That was a big steal for us,” Cooper said. “It can get real dangerous with us in pick-and-rolls. He can pop, shoot or roll. I could get to the rim. You’ve got to pick your poison.”
Garcia, who started his career at Marquette, generated excitement with fans locally giving the Gophers their first McDonald’s All-American since Kris Humphries in 2004. And that’s coming off a 13-17 season in Ben Johnson’s first year as Gophers coach.
“We’re really excited to have Dawson join our program,” Johnson said in a statement Tuesday. “He brings that competitive fight, has a warrior mentality and is a big time talent. Dawson has played high level basketball both at Marquette and North Carolina and shown great versatility. He can play both inside and out, can score, rebound and will bring a much-needed piece to our team.”
The 6-11, 235-pound sophomore entered the transfer portal two weeks ago after averaging 9.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and shooting 37.5% from three-point range in 16 games, including 12 starts.
“Ben’s done an unbelievable job to establish a culture in one year,” Garcia told the Star Tribune last week. “I can only imagine what he’s going to do in Year 2 and beyond. I’m excited to put on the uniform, but also when the time comes to be a proud alum and say I was part of the process of getting Minnesota basketball back .”
Morehead State won 23 games this season and came one win away from the NCAA tournament. But Cooper saw himself playing in a bigger conference to finish his career.
An All-Ohio Valley Conference first team guard, Cooper averaged 9.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, and ranked seventh in Division I with 5.9 assists this season. His 202 assists led the OVC and ranked second in team history.
Entering the portal was a decision to bet on himself getting the opportunity to play at a higher level. And he was definitely rewarded. Cooper’s phone blew up with schools calling from all six major conferences.
Johnson was one of the first head coaches to reach out and constantly stay in contact, Cooper said.
“I went on a visit and just felt like home with everything I was looking for,” Cooper said. “I’m just a true point guard. I score when I need to. But I put my teammates in the right position. I’m the voice and second coach on the court.”
The Gophers return leading scorer and rebounder Jamison Battle, but they lost the entire starting backcourt to graduation, including their No. 2 scorer and assist leader Payton Willis.
Cooper scored double figures in four of his last six games, but he’s much more of a pass-first floor leader. He had 14 games with at least seven assists this year, including four double digit assist performances.
“Ta’Lon is a true floor general,” Johnson added. “He has really good size, good length and great feel. He knows how to deliver the ball on time, on target and has an incredible basketball IQ. He’s a great connector and his personality is contagious, which are both great qualities at that position Ta’Lon is really efficient in all three phases: he can score, rebound and pass.”
Johnson has signed six newcomers with Cooper and Garcia, including four players in his 2022 high school recruiting class, but the Gophers have one more scholarship open for next season.