With a tough schedule to open the season, Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino wasn't able to play his freshmen as much as he wanted to give them experience before going into Big Ten play.
That's why Pitino was so encouraged by what he saw when guard Tre' Williams was forced to play a career-high 27 minutes in Sunday's 84-71 upset over No. 3 Ohio State, with starter Payton Willis injured.
"He's a freshman, but I think he's going to be a good player," Pitino said of Williams. "Payton's really consistent, but that's what having a good team is all about. You've got to be able to turn to that bench."
With Willis' status uncertain for Saturday's game for the Gophers (5-5) against Oklahoma State (8-2) in Tulsa, Williams might be called upon again for extended playing time in a big game.
Willis, who is averaging 11 points per game, leads the Big Ten with 2.7 three-pointers per game and a team-best 27 made threes this season. The junior guard nailed a couple threes in the first half against Ohio State, but he left the game after tweaking his previous injury early in the second half and didn't return.
The Vanderbilt transfer first suffered a lower right leg injury in the 73-68 loss against DePaul on Nov. 29. He reinjured it Dec. 9 in a 72-52 defeat at Iowa, but he was cleared to play Sunday. Pitino hopes Willis can be ready for Saturday, but there's a possibility the injury could be more severe, according to sources.
"He's been hobbled by this," Pitino said. "He's very important to our team, and we need him healthy."
What happens if Willis can't play Saturday? Williams might even have to assume a starting role.
The former Wasatch Academy (Mount Pleasant, Utah) standout was motivated to earn four-star status after Minnesota was the only high-major program to offer him a scholarship last year.
"All my life I felt like I was kind of slept on a little bit," Williams said this autumn. "I feel like it helps me with toughness. My confidence is always there, but having that little extra push helps me a lot."
Williams, who is averaging 3.1 points in 14 minutes, is the only Gophers freshman so far to crack the rotation. Forward Isaiah Ihnen has been slowly catching on after missing the first few games because of a wrist injury. Not many minutes are available for Bryan Greenlee and Sam Freeman playing behind starters Marcus Carr and Daniel Oturu at point guard and center.
The scoring potential of Williams was on display when he led the Gophers with 15 points per game on the foreign tour in Italy in August. He is an athletic slasher who has shown the ability to hit from three-point range (7-for-21 this season). His best offensive game was seven points in 13 minutes vs. Central Michigan on Nov. 21, but Sunday's contributions came on both ends of the floor.
Capping a 13-2 run, Williams showed off his explosiveness while finishing on an acrobatic, off-balance layup that excited the crowd and his teammates.
The 6-5 Dallas native's biggest impact, though, was defensively with two steals and a block while helping to slow down Ohio State's perimeter attack.
If a player as important as Willis is sidelined again, the Gophers will need Williams to be ready.
"He's a fierce competitor," Pitino said. "He wasn't scared of the moment. He wasn't perfect, but he's going to figure it all out. That's a game that could give him some confidence."