For stretches of Thursday’s practice, Eric Curry looked like his old self. The Gophers’ versatile 6-9 redshirt sophomore threw down a dunk in a post-up drill, nailed a jump hook over 7-foot Matz Stockman and scored on a baseline spin on Jordan Murphy in a 5-on-5 session.
Curry, who hasn’t played this season while recovering from knee surgery this fall, shined in moments, but he also slowed down a bit as the practice went on. He eventually needed to sit out.
Despite still clearly trying to get comfortable moving with a metal brace on his left knee, Curry seems closer to making his season debut. Gophers coach Richard Pitino said he will be a game-time decision for Friday’s game against North Carolina A&T.
“He’s clearly going to be rusty, which is normal,” Pitino said. “It’s important to get him healthy back on the court, but also into the swing of things. Obviously, that will take some time.”
Curry’s teammates are encouraged by what they see from Curry.
“He’s still a work in progress not favoring that leg, but he looks good,” Murphy said. “He looks the same he was his freshman year. Obviously, a little better skillwise, but he looks that much in the flow of things.”
The Memphis native was cleared for some full contact in practice two weeks ago, when Pitino was hopeful Curry would play Dec. 11 against North Florida, but he didn’t suit up for that win.
“It’s important for him to progress,” Pitino said. “It’s important to get him into basketball shape and to mentally get him confident going into those games.”
As a freshman in 2016-17, Curry averaged 5.5 points and 5.2 rebounds in 19.9 minutes per game. He had 11 points off the bench in a first-round NCAA tournament loss to Middle Tennessee on March 16, 2017. Curry missed last season with torn ligaments and meniscus in his left knee. On Oct. 20, he started at center and played 20 minutes in a closed scrimmage at Creighton. A week later, though, he had swelling in his left knee and an MRI revealed cartilage damage.
“He’s starting to get more time to get contact in 5-on-5 situations,” junior Michael Hurt said. “He’s always been one of our best post defenders. Just seeing he has confidence offensively and defensively like he did his freshman year is really a sight to see.”
As Curry’s replacement in the starting lineup, freshman center Daniel Oturu has averaged 9.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. Against North Florida, the 6-10 Oturu had his third straight double-figure scoring game and second straight double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
Curry has been a mentor for the former Cretin-Derham Hall standout, helping to speed up his development. After the Gophers watched film of the Nebraska win a couple weeks ago, Curry started doing individual drills for the first time. Oturu had just played a lot the previous game, but Curry told his younger teammate to join him anyway.
“Really good [leadership] and challenges him,” Pitino said of how Curry helps Oturu. “It’s been kind of healthy competition amongst each other.”
The Gophers aren’t sure if Curry will play in the last two nonconference games, but his return soon would help add much-needed frontcourt experience for the 18-game Big Ten schedule that resumes Jan. 3 at Wisconsin.
“He’s not going to be great early,” Pitino said. “You can get him a little bit of playing time. It’s been a year and a half where he hasn’t played. He’s not going to be great, but he can bring a lot of really good things to the table. Not putting too much pressure on him is important as well.”