Coach Richard Pitino had a different sales pitch for each of the three transfers who chose the Gophers men’s basketball team this spring.
Brock Stull wanted to find a place he could feel comfortable quickly and a team that could win next season, his final year of eligibility.
Marcus Carr needed to find a team willing to accept him whether or not he gets an NCAA waiver to play next season.
Payton Willis wanted a coach he knew and a buddy on his next team to ease the pain of sitting out a year.
In the span of three weeks, Pitino added Willis, Carr and Stull, an injection of May optimism. All three are talented guards and have different reasons for coming — but they share Gophers fans’ excitement. Pitino added to the buzz Tuesday on the Gopher Road Trip stop in St. Cloud, calling his current roster the “most talented” he has had at Minnesota.
His lineup’s final piece was Stull, who committed May 15 after visiting campus. He took the longest to decide, ultimately choosing the same path from Wisconsin-Milwaukee as former Panthers guard Akeem Springs: an immediately eligible graduate transfer with an NCAA-tournament-or-bust attitude. Springs got to the Big Dance with Minnesota in 2017.
“Not making it my last three years to the tournament, I think it’s kind of like a must,” the 6-4 Stull said. “I came out and looked at schools I felt like had a really good chance to make the tournament. I wanted to play an important role on a good, winning team.”
As a two-year starter and one of best shooters in the Horizon League, Stull was a hot name on the transfer market. His all-around game (13.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists last season) attracted interest from Butler, North Carolina State and Virginia.
“Other schools were going to give me kind of the same opportunity Minnesota was. But I clicked with the staff and the campus was awesome — kind of everything I was looking for plus more,” said Stull, who played for new Gophers assistant Rob Jeter at Milwaukee. “When I came up on my visit, I was blown away.”
Carr and Willis also committed right after their official visits to Minnesota in early May and late April, respectively. They were both already familiar with Pitino since he recruited them in high school.
In the 2016 class, the Gophers were hoping to sign Willis and Eric Curry, AAU teammates with the Arkansas Wings. Curry, now a redshirt sophomore forward, saw his pal go to Vanderbilt instead. Willis asked for his release after last season and, after talking to Curry, embraced the idea of sitting out to develop and join his friend on the Williams Arena court in 2019-20.
“I’m already wrapping my mind around sitting out and developing for next year,” Willis said. “I got to hang out with the team a lot on my visit. It’s definitely a brotherhood with all the guys. I feel like I fit right in.”
Willis stayed a year at Vanderbilt after Bryce Drew replaced Kevin Stallings as coach before he realized it wasn’t a good fit. Carr wanted out from the start when Stallings was fired at Pittsburgh last month.
Carr, a 6-2 Toronto native, called the situation “pretty tough” having to see the coach who recruited him get fired after one year. Pitino contacted Carr immediately after he was granted a release from Pitt. He has three years left to play.
“[Pitino] just told me to come in as an attacking guard who can make plays for myself and my teammates,” Carr said. “I recognize the talent on this team. That was definitely a factor in me committing as well. If guys work hard I think there’s no reason why we can’t live up to [high] expectations.”
The Gophers are prepared to have Carr sit out a season, but they also will send a waiver on his behalf to the NCAA to see if he can play next season since Stallings was fired.
“The landscape of college basketball right now and the dialogue that’s going on about the rules that are in place could definitely help me get a waiver to play right away,” Carr said. “But if I do have to sit out I’m going to try and attack the year sitting out and try to get better. Just work the whole year, so that the following season I can come in and really be impactful.”