It was clear entering the Gophers men’s basketball season that Richard Pitino’s backcourt would look entirely different.
Would Marcus Carr and Payton Willis be able to replace Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer? Would freshman Tre’ Williams be able to help? How would the returning Gabe Kalscheur mesh with the newcomers?
The picture became even less clear when Willis missed three games because of an ankle injury. But the Gophers (8-6, 2-2 Big Ten), who play Thursday at No. 8 Michigan State, can finally see how all of their backcourt pieces fit together now, especially with Willis back and Williams more prepared to contribute.
“Obviously, losing a guy like Amir Coffey to the NBA is difficult,” Pitino said, “but I like where the backcourt is. I’m excited about those guys. They’re doing a lot of good things.”
Carr is averaging 20 points in his past three games. Kalscheur is shooting 17-for-35 from three-point range in his past four. Just as important was Willis returning to play 21 minutes, and Williams scoring a career-best 11 points in Sunday’s 77-68 victory over Northwestern.
The Wildcats game was the first time the Gophers had their four-guard rotation together and healthy since Willis first got hurt in a Nov. 29 loss to DePaul. He reinjured himself against Clemson on Dec. 2 and was hobbled the next two games before having to sit out to recover.
“It was unfortunate when Payton went down vs. Clemson,” Carr said. “But Tre’ was able to step in that game and every game after and contribute and be a bonus for us and the team.”
Williams started the past four games, but the highlight was definitely his performance Sunday. The 6-5 Dallas native had a strong all-around game with two three-pointers, five rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
“He plays hard and that’s the first step,” Pitino said. “I think his future is very bright. As hard as it’s been to play these games without Payton, he’s taken advantage of some good opportunities.”
Carr had a combined 59 points in victories over Clemson and Ohio State. Kalscheur had a 34-point performance to help defeat Oklahoma State in Tulsa. That helped give the Gophers a perimeter attack to complement sophomore center Daniel Oturu, their leading scorer.
But not having Willis eventually hurt the Gophers most when they lost 83-78 in two overtimes Thursday at Purdue. Carr scored 27 points, but he went scoreless and committed costly turnovers late in regulation and in the overtimes after playing 48 out of 50 minutes. Kalscheur and Williams combined for just 19 points on 5-for-20 shooting playing 48 and 44 minutes, respectively.
Willis, who averaged 12.9 points before his injury, was finally cleared to play after practicing before the Northwestern game over the weekend. The junior transfer from Vanderbilt showed some signs of his old self Sunday. He hit a three-pointer, defended well and shared ballhandling responsibilities with Carr.
A big reason why freshman Bryan Greenlee hasn’t played much this season is because Willis is also the backup point guard. Carr is leading the Big Ten at 37 minutes per game, including all 40 minutes against Northwestern, but that should change as Willis gets comfortable to play more. Williams’ confidence and experience from starting also makes the Gophers backcourt that much better.
“The one thing I can tell you about them is they’re tough and they want to win,” Pitino said. “This team has a will collectively as good as any of the teams that I’ve been around.”