Eric Curry’s name comes up every time Richard Pitino looks back on how the Gophers achieved one of their big goals two seasons ago.
“He was an extremely important part of our NCAA tournament team as a freshman,” Pitino said this summer.
Oozing potential in his first college basketball season, the 6-9, 235-pound Curry had Pitino and Gophers fans predicting a breakout sophomore year until a knee injury in a pickup game before Minnesota’s first fall practice sidelined him.
That was the first major blow for what became a disappointing 15-17 season.
Curry is not yet cleared for full contact, but he returned to practice in June for the first time since the injury. He’s on a conservative recovery path this summer, but the Memphis native hopes to again be a major contributor on an NCAA tournament team.
“It definitely motivates me to get back to that stage and get back to that NCAA tournament goal,” said Curry, who averaged 5.5 points and 5.2 rebounds in 19.9 minutes in 2016-17. “I’m just happy to be back on the court playing basketball again.”
Curry was an all-around performer as a freshman — making key rebounds, defensive stops and even big shots in several victories. Being that versatile and skilled at 6-9 makes him a special talent and NBA prospect.
“I definitely think Eric can be a pro,” said Vanderbilt transfer guard Payton Willis, who played with Curry on the Arkansas Wings AAU team in high school. “He’s a versatile big who can handle the ball and pass it very well. I think he can be a pro for sure if he keeps working.”
The Gophers often left All-Big Ten forward Jordan Murphy on an island to fend for himself in the paint last season. Curry should be there next season to provide plenty of aid for Murphy, and so will freshmen posts Daniel Oturu and Jarvis Omersa. Curry is ready to be a leader and help prepare the younger big men to play in the Big Ten right away like he did.
“I definitely wrapped my mind around [a leadership role], because of the incoming big men we have now,” Curry said. “[Oturu and Omersa] are probably going to be contributing a lot for us this year. I’m just trying to be there for them and help them out like people who were here for me.”
Oturu, a 6-10 four-star recruit, is the Gophers’ future center. Curry is likely the man in the middle right now, but he also can play forward. He backed up Reggie Lynch at center two seasons ago, while also playing quality minutes behind Murphy at power forward.
Pitino thought Curry was arguably the team’s most improved player over last summer. He imagined Curry becoming a post threat that could take defenders off the dribble and fill it up from the outside. He watched videos of Michigan’s Mo Wagner to figure out how to put Curry in the right position to utilize his perimeter skills at his size.
Curry shot only 17.2 percent from beyond the arc as a freshman, but he was showing drastic improvement before the injury. Mechanics weren’t the problem. He shot 70 percent on free throws his first year.
“To have him back on the court is exciting,” Pitino said. “We’re going to be a little bit smaller [inside] with Daniel, Eric, Jarvis, Murph and you can even throw [Michael Hurt] at the four. But we’ve got more skill. We can pass the ball better. We can move a little bit better. You don’t necessarily have the traditional big. But that’s what I love about Eric. Eric is a skilled big guy where you can put him wherever. He can knock down the three. He’s got to get his jump shot as good as [Wagner]. But he’s got some similarities, where you’ve got to make some decisions when you play against him.”
Besides becoming more comfortable wearing a knee brace in the next few months, Curry’s offseason goals are about sharpening his jumper and being able to finish consistently inside. Minnesota’s coaches joked with him last season that he “had million-dollar moves, but one-cent finishes.”
“Just being able to finish around the rim,” Curry said. “That will go a long way and help the team a lot. I just basically have to get my strength up and be as strong as possible.”
The Gophers have been cautious with Curry’s knee having some swelling at times this summer now that he’s been practicing. The timetable on when he’s fully cleared is uncertain, but Pitino looks forward to talking less about what Curry did his freshman season and more about him taking great strides this year.
“He’s naturally going to be out of shape,” Pitino said. “It’s physically and mentally getting him comfortable. What’s really good for him is we’re not going really long right now. We’re only going for about an hour four times a week. So we’re not wearing him out too bad.”