The last time fans were allowed to attend Gophers men's basketball games at Williams Arena was the 2019-20 season. So Monday's 80-67 win against Concordia (St. Paul) really was a welcome back to a bit of normal for college hoops this year.
In case anyone forgot, though, exhibitions are fun to catch the first glimpse at your team, but they're not always an indicator of what's to come when the real games begin.
First-year coach Ben Johnson and his newcomer-laden squad showed positives but also areas of concern entering next Tuesday's opener vs. Missouri Kansas City.
Here are four observations from the exhibition victory against Concordia (St. Paul).
Curry and Willis reunite
The main reason Payton Willis decided to transfer from Vanderbilt to the Gophers three years ago was to join his former Arkansas Wings AAU teammate Eric Curry. They had talked about going to the same college out of high school, but it didn't work out. They were looking forward to playing together after Willis sat out at Minnesota, then Curry got hurt. They were on separate teams last year after Willis transferred to College of Charleston, but the reunion on the court finally happened Monday night.
How about the first basket of the game turning out to be Curry to Willis for a three-point play after a fouled jump shot and free throw.
"It's just how it played out; we didn't draw it up like that," Willis said with a smile about the first play. "He was probably the main reason why I came back being around him. That guy is my brother. It's insane it came out that way. Hopefully, we can do that next Tuesday."
Willis finished with 23 points, five assists and four rebounds. Curry had seven points on 3-for-8 shooting, but he had seven rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block in 24 minutes. Willis and Curry combined for nine of the team's 14 assists on 31 field goals.
Potential go-to guys
Sophomore Jamison Battle looked smooth nailing a three-pointer for his first basket of the game near the 17-minute mark in the first half Monday. His next field goal didn't come until 10 minutes later, but he would catch fire. The former DeLaSalle standout scored 13 of his 18 first-half points in the last seven minutes. He slowed down a bit after halftime, but Battle finished with a game-high 24 points on 8-for-15 shooting from the field, 3-for-8 from three, and 5-for-5 from the foul line.
"You got guys who are going to go out there and shoot with confidence," said Battle, who averaged 17.3 points last season at George Washington. "I believe we have so many three-point shooters that if someone has an off day there's going to be a guy right next to you who is going to pick you up."
In the second half, Willis picked up the slack with 13 of his 23 points, but he also shot 5-for-8 from the field and 3-for-5 from three in the second half. Willis averaged 13.4 points last season at Charleston, including a career-best 40% from beyond the arc, so his confidence as a go-to threat is also high.
Starting lineup set?
Johnson wasn't sure a few weeks ago what his starting lineup would look like, but the Gophers had time to figure something out, especially after an Oct. 25 closed scrimmage at Oklahoma. On Monday, the starters were Willis, Luke Loewe, E.J. Stephens, Battle, and Curry. Four seniors and a sophomore. Four perimeter players and one true post.
Willis was mainly a point guard. Curry played center. Other than that, Loewe, Stephens, and Battle were playing multiple positions. Stephens was the third player in double figures with 10 points on 4-for-10 shooting. His presence as an athletic slashing threat will be something to watch against bigger and better opponents. Sean Sutherlin, who also fits that mold, had the biggest impact off the bench with six points and six rebounds in 18 minutes. Could Sutherlin and Stephens be together in the starting lineup this season? They might need their athleticism together on the court at times.
The Gophers were outrebounded 43-41 by a Division II opponent, including 21-15 in the second half. How did it happen? Well, the obvious answer is that the size difference was not significant at all. The Gophers' tallest player is 6-11 freshman Treyton Thompson, but he played eight minutes. Curry and Charlie Daniels (10 rebounds combined) are tough and physical 6-9 seniors, but they'll need a bunch of help in the boards this season.
Battle's more comfortable outside, but he led the team with eight rebounds. Concordia's Jack Stensgard had a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. That's probably what Johnson will need from one of his backcourt players this season to compete on the glass undersized in the Big Ten.