When you introduce the most newcomers in more than a decade the chances of one of them making a splash in their debut is pretty high.
That was the case with the Gophers men’s basketball team when five of their seven newcomers took the court for their first official game in Tuesday’s 85-50 win against Cleveland State.
Starting guards and transfers Marcus Carr and Payton Willis had the best Gophers debut in six years.
They combined for 35 points, 16 assists, 11 rebounds and eight of the team’s 13 three-pointers. Both Carr and Willis scored the most points for a Gophers newcomer since Drake transfer and former Eastview star Joey King had 20 points in Pitino’s first game as Minnesota’s coach vs. Lehigh on Nov. 8, 2013.
“They have a nice quiet confidence about them, which I like,” Pitino said. “They’re eager for these opportunities in front of them. When you sit out a year like Payton and Marcus have, you’re going to take advantage of those opportunities right away.”
Carr, a 6-foot-2 sophomore Pittsburgh transfer, had 18 points on 5-for-13 shooting from the field, eight assists and seven rebounds. He was just two assists and three rebounds away from the U’s first triple-double since legend Mychal Thompson in 1976.
Sitting out together last season helped Carr and Willis build chemistry that “shows on the court,” Carr said.
“We’ve gotten used to each other’s games a lot,” Carr said Tuesday. “We know where each other is going to be on the court. We communicate a lot when we’re out there in timeouts and everything. Just let each other know we’re on the same page. The fact we were sitting out last year and watch away games at home together and built that bond.”
Willis, a 6-5 junior Vanderbilt transfer, was the most efficient player for the Gophers in the opener. He had 17 points on 6-for-9 shooting from the field, 5-for-8 shooting from three-point range, to go along with eight assists and zero turnovers in nearly 30 minutes.
Pitino called Willis the unofficial MVP during Minnesota’s foreign trip to Italy in August. The competition there was suspect, but Willis continued to impact the exhibition games this fall, including a pair of threes in overtime to win a scrimmage at Iowa State.
Carr’s 18 points Tuesday were not his career high in college. As a freshman at Pitt in 2017-18, the Toronto native scored 23 points against Mount St. Mary’s College, 22 points against North Carolina and 19 points vs. High Point.
Willis’ 17 points Tuesday tied his career high during his freshman year at Vanderbilt vs. Butler in 2016-17. He also tied his career best with five three-pointers Tuesday, also reaching that mark in a win against Mississippi State as a sophomore in 2018. The eight assists in his Gophers debut was the most in a game in his career.
It should be an exciting guard matchup Saturday when Carr, Willis and Gabe Kalscheur face off against Oklahoma in Sioux Falls, S.D. The Sooners had their own high-scoring newcomers with Wichita State transfer Austin Reaves and freshman De'Vion Harmon, who scored 23 points apiece in Tuesday's win against Texas-San Antonio.
High scoring mark
The Gophers’ 35-point win on Tuesday night was the largest margin of victory in the opener since beating American 72-36 to begin the 2012-13 season under Tubby Smith.
The last time Minnesota defeated any opponent by at least 30 points was in a 95-60 win vs. Florida Atlantic in 2017-18.
Other top debuts for newcomers under Pitino before Carr and Willis
2013 – Joey King 20 points 6-for-10 field goals vs. Lehigh
2018 – Daniel Oturu 14 points, eight rebounds vs. Nebraska Omaha
2016 – Amir Coffey* 13 points, three rebounds, three assists vs. Louisiana Lafayette
2016 – Akeem Springs 11 points 3-for-8 three-pointers vs. Louisiana Lafayette
2016 – Reggie Lynch 10 points, eight rebounds, two blocks vs. Louisiana Lafayette
2014 – Nate Mason 10 points, five rebounds, two assists vs. Louisville
* - Coffey scored 30 points vs. St. John's as a freshman in 2016-17.