The Gophers’ overtime upset of No. 4 Iowa will likely go down in the annuls as The Brandon Johnson Game, named for the grad transfer who canned a career-best 8-of-9 three-pointers, including four in overtime.
But there wouldn’t have been overtime without the heroics of Marcus Carr. Down six with 28 seconds left, the star point guard drained a left-wing 3 with a stepback move that seemed to defy physics. Two missed Iowa free throws later, the ball was in Carr’s hands again with a chance to tie. He dribbled twice across half court, took two hard dribbles to his left, abruptly changed direction, and took two more dribbles to his favorite part of the floor. He uncorked a right-wing jump shot. Draino.
The Gophers finally have a crunch-time assassin. Carr showed glimpses of it in 2019-20 when he beat Ohio State at the buzzer on the road and iced home games against Penn State, Michigan, and Ohio State with torrid stretches. The 2020-21 Carr has already called and raised the ante that last year’s version laid on the table. Only one player nationally has more 30-point games this season than Carr, Iowa’s stellar big man Luka Garza, and Carr now has a pair of last-second buzzer-beaters on his resume — one to beat Loyola-Marymount early in the year and his latest highlight against the Hawkeyes.
“I’ve been a first-hand seer of that in practice,” said freshman Jamal Mashburn Jr. “I know what he can do, and I’ve seen it. He’s a special player. For us to have a guy like that every night, being consistent and a guy that we can go to in the stretch of a late-game and be able to knock down shots or make plays for others, that’s crucial for any team to have. He’s one of the best point guards in the country, bottom line.”
End of half. End of shot clock. End of game. Carr has earned the right to get the shot in those situations thanks to his vast array of high-difficulty jumpers. His skillset appears sharper this season, and his clutch gene has been enhanced.
“Confidence, fearlessness,” said head coach Richard Pitino when asked about the ingredients for Carr’s crunch-time knack. “He legitimately after practice has a routine of shooting half-court shots. Why? I don’t know. But he legitimately believes every single shot is going to go in. He’s just got belief, and that comes from work. You can pretend to be confident all you want, but you’ve got to put in the work, and Marcus puts in the work every single day.”
Carr’s NBA aspirations may play a role in his laser focus. The 21-year-old decided against embarking on an uphill battle to make an NBA roster this fall and opted to return to Minnesota for another season. Through nine games, Carr has an extra edge, less passivity and more efficiency. His shooting inside the arc is up 11% from .410 to .528, and his 3-point shooting is up from .361 to .393. For an undersized Carr to make it at the next level, he’ll need to be an exceedingly good shooter and a strong finisher. So far he’s checking both those boxes.
“Marcus is not about nonsense,” Pitino said. “He’s pretty business-like in his approach, and he knows the ball’s going to be put in his hands, and he’s able to make the right play over and over again.”
If Carr stays hot, he may not be around in 2021-22 to lead a promising, senior-heavy Gophers roster. That’s where Mashburn comes in as Carr’s likely successor at point guard. Mashburn, a freshman, is already seeing more minutes as Carr’s back-court partner — a good crash course for potentially filling Carr’s shoes next year.
“He’s had a major impact, just how to be a point guard in this league and the NCAA in general,” Mashburn said. “He’s a great pick-and-roll player, so that’s what I’m trying to get better on, that’s what I’m trying to end up becoming. Just teaching me the little nuances of that. That’s my guy. We talk about things off the court, life stuff. He’s had a great impact, me coming in having somebody I can lean on, ask questions and stuff like that anytime. He’s great.”
His shot-making has stolen the Gophers a couple of wins this season, and Carr may need to steal a couple more for them to earn an NCAA Tournament bid in a tough Big Ten. In an unorthodox no-fans-allowed season where home-court advantage is virtually non-existent and pure talent will carry a team more than ever, Carr is in the driver’s seat, and Minnesota will likely go as far as he takes them.
“Every day he just puts his head down and grinds,” said center Liam Robbins. “We just follow his lead. We say we go as he goes. We just follow that approach. We’re in conference play. Yeah, you can have fun playing basketball, but be ready to go every night.”