This was supposed to be the first season former Arkansas high school AAU basketball teammates Payton Willis and Eric Curry were on the court together again with the Gophers.
Curry was lost for the season with a knee injury in the fall, but he helped to motivate his old friend after Willis missed four games with his own health issues.
The impact Willis was expecting to have after transferring from Vanderbilt was on display with his career-high 21 points in Wednesday’s 70-52 victory over Wisconsin.
The Gophers (12-10, 6-6 Big Ten) are hoping Willis can continue to give the backcourt a lift Saturday at No. 22 Penn State (17-5, 7-4). The 6-5 junior guard has been playing all season for Curry, who is a source of inspiration, while waiting until next season to join his friend on the court.
“That’s my brother,” Willis said. “I always see him in high spirits. He doesn’t even have to say anything. He can just smile and that encourages me, because I know what he’s going through.”
Curry and Willis had known each other since teaming up with the Arkansas Wings basketball team in eighth grade. They faced each other as college freshmen, when the Gophers beat Vanderbilt in 2016.
“It was kind of crazy,” Willis recalled. “Coach [Richard] Pitino recruited me hard out of high school. I was supposed to go on a visit there, but I ended up committing before I came on a visit here. There was a possibility of playing together. Eric and I were talking about it.”
As fate would have it, Willis decided to transfer to Minnesota from Vanderbilt in 2018.
After sitting out last season under NCAA transfer rules, Willis was devastated upon hearing that Curry would be out for the year after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. It was his third major injury in as many seasons. Willis came to the Twin Cities specifically to reunite with Curry.
“I know what he’s capable of,” Curry said of Willis. “I tell him to keep his head on straight and don’t get too down on yourself. I played through [injuries] last year when my knee wasn’t 100 percent. You just have to do whatever you can for the team.”
That’s the mentality Willis had for weeks after rolling his right ankle while landing on an opponent’s foot in the second half of a Nov. 29 home loss to DePaul. He scored 16 points that night but scored in double figures only once in the next 10 games.
He missed three games, and even after he returned Willis was clearly not the same player who averaged 13 points, shot 39% on three-pointers and led the Big Ten with 3.0 threes per game through seven games.
“I definitely wanted to come back and play at that level,” Willis said. “I felt like I was shooting the ball well and helping us on defense.”
Another injury blow came when a teammate came down on Willis’ shoulder in practice before the Illinois game last week. But nearly a week of rest resulted in an impressive shooting display Wednesday against the Badgers.
The Fayetteville, Ark., native scored 13 points with four three-pointers in the first half, which included making his first four shots.
“I’m not surprised by it,” Pitino said. “When he’s shooting the ball, if he’s open, I’m expecting it to go in. The problem is he’s been hobbled by the ankle injury where he missed some games, and the shoulder injury. It’s been a series of bad luck.”
Pitino said Willis told him after the Wisconsin game he feels 100% healthy again.
“It was kind of a blessing in disguise,” Willis said. “It’s always motivation every time you get hurt. Sometimes you take the game for granted.”