With the departures of Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer, the Gophers knew they would need two new starters at guard for the 2019-20 season. Luckily, the replacements for the long-time starters have already spent a year with the program.
For Minnesota's season opener, both redshirt sophomore Marcus Carr and redshirt junior Payton Willis took the court in a competitive college basketball game for the first time in over a year. Carr, a transfer from Pittsburgh, and Willis, a transfer from Vanderbilt, had to sit out the 2018-19 season due to NCAA transfer rules. In that first game against Cleveland State, the duo showed the new dynamic they would bring to the offense as Minnesota made 13 threes.
"We've gotten used to each others' games now," Carr said. "The fact that we sat out last year and had the opportunity to be on scout team together a lot and watch away games at home a lot together and built that bond, it shows on the court."
Although Coffey and McBrayer were both accomplished players, they shot just 30.4% and 28.0% on 3-pointers last season. Having seen Willis and Carr in practice, head coach Richard Pitino correctly predicted the Gophers' offense would focus more on outside shooting with those two starting. Last year, Minnesota ranked dead last in the Big Ten in 3-point shots made and attempted. Through eight games this season, the Gophers lead the conference in those categories.
"I feel like everybody on the court will be a 3-point threat this year," Willis said before the season. "Other teams will have to respect that and come out there to guard the 3-point line."
Willis has led the charge from behind the arc, leading the team in 3-point shooting at 23-60 (.383). He has shot particularly accurately in home games, having made 18-37 (.486) threes at The Barn.
The ability of Willis, as well as others, to shoot from the outside and space the floor has particularly helped sophomore Gabe Kalscheur, who made 77 3-pointers last season — 35 more than any other Gopher. Kalscheur says having other players like Willis who can make 3-pointers has helped support him this year.
"It's nice having a lot more versatile shooters on the court," Kalscheur said. "If they close out on me, I can give it to Payton or Marcus or any other shooter on the court because I know they are going to make the shot. I feel confident with the guys around me getting shots up and making them."
Playing an instrumental role in finding those open shooters has been Carr, who leads the Gophers with 53 of their 131 assists. Like Kalscheur, Carr's game appears to be turning a corner. In the team's last game, a 78-60 victory over Clemson, Carr shot 8-16 from the floor to lead Minnesota with a career-high 24 points, going along with nine assists.
"[Pitino] talked about me using my change of speed," Carr said. "He'd seen me use it before, and he thought that I wasn't doing it the past few games, so he was emphasizing that I get back to that and look for stuff in transition."
Gophers fans may have only gotten their first look at Willis and Carr over the past month, but those with the team knew they were adding two talented contributors to the starting lineup. Pitino got a good look at both on the scout team last season, crediting them for helping prepare and push teammates during the run to the NCAA Tournament.
"Payton and Marcus are two very important guys for us," Pitino said. "I don't look at them like young guys, I look at them like veterans."
Up next for Carr and Willis is their first Big Ten game, as Minnesota will travel south to play Iowa on Monday, Dec. 9.