The Minnesota Golden Gophers surprised their fans last March with a trip to the Big Ten Tournament semi-finals and an NCAA Tournament victory over favored Louisville.
And they had two of their better players watching from the sideline.
Transfers Marcus Carr and Payton Willis looked on as the Gophers battled throughout 2018-19 with a shallow bench, forced to sit out for a year due to the NCAA’s transfer rules. Carr had hoped to receive a waiver to play immediately due to a “toxic environment,” he claimed, at his former program, Pittsburgh, but was denied.
After a trying year away from playing competitive games, Carr and Willis are projected to be a starters in Minnesota’s new-look lineup that is missing three-year starters Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer, who graduated, and Amir Coffey, who left for the NBA. They’ll join returning shooting guard Gabe Kalscheur to form the Gophers’ backcourt.
“Payton and Marcus are two very, very important guys for us,” said head coach Richard Pitino Friday at Gophers media day. “We’ve got a lot of new guys, but they’re not young. They can’t act young. New guys are going to do some things some days that are going to make you go crazy, but they just can’t do it too much. That’s the key with young guys. Marcus and Payton, I don’t look at them like young guys. I look at them like veterans.”
Willis, who transferred from Vanderbilt, was drawn to Minnesota because of AAU pal Eric Curry — a fellow Arkansas native — and the freedom that Pitino gives his guards. He averaged just over five points and just under two rebounds per game in his two seasons with the Commodores, playing in a part-time role. He’ll play an off-guard position with the Gophers.
Willis said he focused on watching practice film during his sit-out season in 2018-19 and bonded with Carr as they dealt together with the impatience of not being able to play competitive basketball.
“It sucks. I hate the rule,” said Willis of sitting out, “but I feel like it gave me a chance to develop on and off the court.
“I feel like me and Marcus have a connection just from sitting out last year and staying back and watching these guys play games on the road, so I feel like we have a connection already.”
Carr, the team’s new point guard, has three years of eligibility remaining after playing just one year at Pittsburgh, scoring 10 points and notching four assists per game before head coach Kevin Stallings was fired and Carr looked for other options. Coincidentally, Willis committed to Vanderbilt when Stallings was still the coach there, but he left for Pittsburgh before Willis’s freshman year.
The two guards who both envisioned playing for Stallings are now together under Pitino, who is the only one with a solid grasp of where they’re at in their development after a year of mostly closed practices. When the Gophers were preparing for Purdue last year, Pitino asked Carr to mimic Carsen Edwards on the scout team, and Carr went off — much like the Boilermakers guard, who is now on the Boston Celtics.
“You’re like, ‘Wow, be Carsen Edwards every day,'” Pitino would tell Carr.
Kalscheur, arguably the Gophers’ best defender, explained why Carr is difficult to guard.
“His change of pace, he can shoot it, he can attack you, he can get in your body really well,” Kalscheur rattled off. “Sometimes it’s hard getting over the screens because he keeps you on his hip after you get caught from the screen.”
But the head coach is realistic that there may be rust built up for his two transfers after a year on the bench.
“I think there will be. It’s natural,” Pitino said. “I think there will be a nerves factor, there will be an anticipation that’s been building up over and over again when you play in a scrimmage, you play in an exhibition game and you try to simulate as much as you possibly can, but you also understand that it’s just not the same.”
Perhaps Pitino’s biggest ask is that Carr and Willis become leaders on a team for which they’ve never played a game. Minnesota’s two returning starters are sophomores, both younger than Carr and Willis. Michael Hurt is the only returning senior who played meaningful minutes in 2018-19, and the redshirt junior Curry will miss the season after tearing his ACL in practice.
With 40 points per game disappearing upon the departure of Minnesota’s three longtime starters, Carr and Willis have the tall task of producing on the court and filling a significant leadership void.
“The leadership has always been something I’ve been looked to for and I’ve been preparing for it my whole life, so I wouldn’t say it’s a burden or anything,” Carr said. “I kind of look forward to it. I like that challenge, I like to be challenged. I’m a competitive person. I like the challenge of knowing that I need people to follow me.”