Before Payton Willis faced Eric Curry on the Sanford Pentagon court in Sioux Falls, S.D., two years ago, he predicted his Vanderbilt team would thump Curry’s Gophers.
“I definitely was talking trash to [Curry] before the game that we were going to win,” Willis said about his former AAU teammate. “Then after the game, he was talking about how the Gophers beat us.”
Willis, a 6-4, 180-pound guard, couldn’t beat the Gophers during his freshman year, but he never expected two seasons later he’d be joining Curry, a sophomore forward, at Minnesota. The Fayetteville, Ark., native announced last month he would transfer from the Southeastern Conference to the Big Ten.
“It’s a blessing to go to a place where I feel like I can fit in right away after my year sitting out and developing,” Willis said. “It will be nice to get back on the court with Eric and compete and win games with him. And it will be great to play with Coach [Richard] Pitino and his staff. I’m excited.”
One of the three scholarships available for Minnesota to use this spring went to Willis, who will be eligible to play in 2019-20 after sitting out this coming season because of the NCAA’s transfer rules.
The next moves for Pitino and the remaining two roster spots aren’t as clear.
Trying to add more guard depth for next season is presumed to be a priority for the Gophers, who have sophomore-to-be Isaiah Washington as the only scholarship point guard returning.
Finding impact Division I transfers or high school seniors in the late signing period is a difficult task, especially after Pitino lost assistants Ben Johnson and Kimani Young to Xavier and Connecticut, respectively. Former Wis.-Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter was hired to replace Young, but the Gophers are still down one full-time assistant. They had U director of basketball Ryan Livingston get NCAA clearance to travel with Jeter and assistant Ed Conroy during the April open recruiting period.
After spending the past two weeks figuring out which 2019 and 2020 players to offer, Pitino and the Gophers were planning to host Crestwood Preparatory College (Canada) senior guard Franco Miller Jr. for an official visit Wednesday. Miller, who is from the Bahamas, told the Star Tribune on Wednesday morning that the visit “didn’t work out.” He plans to announce his decision May 10, deciding between Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oregon and Mississippi.
A week ago, College of Southern Idaho guard Danya Kingsby made his official campus visit. The 6-1, 165-pound Milwaukee native said he was impressed with the team and new facilities, but Kingsby has yet to announce any decision. He received a release from his signed letter of intent with Pittsburgh after coach Kevin Stallings was fired in early April. In a bit of recruiting tug of war, Kingsby heard from the Gophers right after Pitt offered a scholarship to one of Minnesota’s other targets this spring.
Four-star Hargrave Military Academy (Va.) guard Trey McGowens also made a trip to see Pitino’s program last month. But McGowens, who reclassified from the 2019 to 2018 class, soon committed to Pitt and first-year coach Jeff Capel on April 24.
This high-speed recruiting carousel has left some fans’ heads spinning. But there’s more to come. Another possible visit Minnesota could get in May is from Wis.-Milwaukee graduate transfer Brock Stull, who decided last week to pursue a power-conference school for his senior year. Stull, a 6-4 guard, played two years for Jeter and with ex-Gophers guard Akeem Springs at Milwaukee. Stull’s list of interested schools continues to grow, including North Carolina State, Xavier and Butler.
“Everyone’s going to tell you they want the right fit, but that’s obvious,” Stull told the Pack Pride website recently. “I want to win. I want to make the NCAA tournament.”
Willis played in the NCAA tournament with Vanderbilt in 2017, but he wanted to transfer after not seeing a future with second-year coach Bryce Drew last season. His previous relationship with Curry and Pitino helped to make the decision to pick Minnesota an easy one after his official visit two weeks ago.
“I definitely will bring ball handling and leadership,” said Willis, who averaged 5.1 points and 1.9 rebounds in 18.5 minutes per game last year. “I’ve been to the NCAA tournament but also had a rough season like they just had [Vanderbilt was 12-20 and Gophers were 15-17]. I had to deal with losing and it’s tough. But I can help lead and have experience playing in all of those games.”
The Gophers could use player such as Willis right away — and then some — but his time on the floor won’t come until the fall of 2019. Finding two players for the fall of 2018 will make for Pitino’s busiest May in Minnesota since his first one in 2013.