Alihan Demir had a connection with the Gophers basketball team before he ever decided to transfer to Minnesota last year to help fill some holes in their frontcourt.
As a senior in high school seven years ago, Demir played for a club team called Milli Piyango in his hometown of Ankara, the capital of Turkey. The star he looked up to was Vincent Grier, who was an All-Big Ten guard and played at the U from 2004-06.
Grier was playing on a professional team for the same club. Demir frequently worked with those players, getting advice from Grier on ways to expand his game.
“We talked every practice [about] just doing the little things,” said Demir, now 24. “He showed me little tricks he does to get to the rim.”
Demir has used some of those tricks lately to get on a roll, with three consecutive double-figure scoring games for the Gophers (9-7), who play host to Penn State on Wednesday. The 6-9 Drexel graduate transfer is becoming a solid frontcourt complement to Daniel Oturu after struggling earlier in the season to adjust to the high-major level.
“I don’t think it was a confidence thing,” said Demir, who had 13 points in a 75-67 victory Sunday over No. 19 Michigan. “It was putting too much on myself, I think. The skill level is pretty high here than it was in the [Colonial Athletic Association]. I would say everybody is bigger, better and stronger.”
Last summer, the Gophers were desperate for some frontcourt depth to help replace All-Big Ten forward Jordan Murphy. Demir said he received interest from 40 Division I schools when he announced his transfer, but he only visited Kansas State and Minnesota.
Demir, who averaged 14.8 points and 6.4 rebounds as a junior at Drexel last season, liked what the Gophers were selling about filling Murphy’s role. He jumped at the opportunity to come to Minneapolis, but he called his old friend Grier first.
“I remember he messaged me when he was going to transfer,” Grier said. “Told him, ‘Great choice.’ ”
Grier was at the end of his pro basketball career when he played in Turkey in 2013-14. Eventually he left the country and returned to the States. He was surprised the tall and lanky Turkish kid who spent long hours picking his brain about hoops decided to go the college route in America instead of staying overseas.
“Basically, it’s almost like a farm system,” Grier said. “They will play for that team growing up and hopefully be a pro with the same club.”
After leaving Turkey to play for West Oaks Academy in Orlando, Fla., Demir had no Division I scholarship offers. He gave it another shot at Central Wyoming College in Riverton, which had a population of 10,000. It was a culture shock coming from Ankara’s bustling city of 5 million people, but it paid off when Demir landed at Drexel in Philadelphia.
Going from an all-conference player in the Colonial Athletic Association his junior year to even a serviceable frontcourt player for a Big Ten team was not as easy as Demir expected.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino was forced to lean on Demir with a tough nonconference schedule because junior forward/center Eric Curry was sidelined in the fall because of another season-ending knee injury.
Demir had 10 points in his first game against Cleveland State, but he averaged only 4.8 points on 29.6% shooting and 3.8 rebounds during a four-game stretch when the Gophers lost three in a row to Oklahoma, Butler and Utah.
“He was really frustrated early,” Pitino said. “He was like, ‘I don’t know what my role is.’ I said, ‘Alihan, the way that you’re playing, there is no role.’ That’s the reality of it. That’s the truth.”
Pitino replaced Demir with sophomore Jarvis Omersa in the starting lineup in a Nov. 15 loss at Utah, but they quickly decided that wasn’t the answer. Demir has started every game since, but that benching motivated him, he said.
Even battling a lingering knee injury, the Gophers senior is averaging 11.3 points and 7.3 rebounds in his past three games. Now that he’s a stretch forward with ballhandling skills, Demir’s game resembles what Grier first saw from a slender 17-year-old in Turkey.
“I watched some of his games,” Grier said. “I told him to play with your heart and you’ll be good.”