There aren’t many backcourts in college basketball like the Gophers’ Marcus Carr, Payton Willis and Gabe Kalscheur, who have been battle tested in three of the toughest conferences in the country.
They haven’t played an official game together. But they’ve separately started games in the Big Ten, ACC and SEC, respectively. Their names don’t show up on preseason all-conference projections or preseason watch lists for national awards. But that just adds to their motivation to prove together they’re one of the best backcourts around.
“We talk about what we think we can do,” Carr, a sophomore point guard, said. “It’s definitely an emphasis of ours to be the strongest backcourt we can be and lead our team.”
Carr, Kalscheur and Willis combined for 46 points, 13 rebounds, six assists but also nine turnovers in Saturday’s 77-68 closed scrimmage overtime victory at Iowa State. Freshmen guards Tre’ Williams and Bryan Greenlee also contributed off the bench.
Next Monday’s exhibition vs. Southwest Minnesota State will be the new backcourt’s first game in front of Gophers fans. Carr and company look forward to showing they belong among the best.
“We know we have the potential,” Carr said.
Last season, the Gophers’ three-guard starting lineup of Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer and Kalscheur helped them win 22 games and reach the NCAA tournament second round. Coffey and McBrayer are gone. Kalscheur returns looking to build off his 24-point performance in the U’s first-round win vs. Louisville, but he has some help with several talented newcomers.
Leading the way will be transfers Carr and Willis, who sat out last season from Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt, respectively. Having already played at the Power Five level, plus spending a year in Minnesota’s program makes them ready and eager for bigger roles.
“Very, very important guys, especially with Amir leaving,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “Marcus and Payton, I don’t look at them like young guys. I look at them like veterans.”
Pitino doesn’t see Kalscheur as a typical sophomore, either. The 6-foot-4 Edina native was the team’s best shooter and defender as a freshman. He led the Gophers with 41 % shooting from three-point range and set a school freshman record with 77 threes last season.
“I think Gabe’s one of the best guards in the conference,” Pitino said. “I think Gabe has got a chance to … play in the NBA. That’s because Gabe works hard every single day. There’s no nonsense. There are no distractions. Before practice. After practice.”
Opponents scouting the Gophers last year were able to limit Kalscheur from beyond the arc during a stretch in Big Ten play, but he continued to impact defensively. He’s worked on offensively becoming even better at getting into the lane and making plays off the dribble.
“Just more comfortable with the ball coming off ball screens and making better reads,” Kalscheur said. “I feel like I didn’t do it that much last year. I feel like improving that in my game in the offseason will help out a lot.”
Coffey thrived as the primary ballhandler at the end of last season, but the Gophers have more options at point guard this year. “Everybody can bring the ball up the court,” Willis said. “Everybody can create for others, as well a score and defend.”
Kalscheur and Willis are the team’s best shooters. They spend extra time shooting together. Their gym-rat approach has become contagious. Carr’s toughness also is rubbing off on teammates. Kalscheur and Willis both describe their floor leader as having a “dog” mentality.
“He plays hard every possession and he’s feisty,” Willis said. “It brings out the dog in everybody. So, I love playing with Marcus.”