Payton Willis did what you rarely see in the transfer-centric era of college basketball. Transfer back to the program he already left.
Willis, a 6-4 senior guard from the College of Charleston in South Carolina, had a good reason for returning to the Gophers. He'd get to spend one more season with his best friend, Eric Curry.
Last month, Willis signed to play for new Gophers coach Ben Johnson as a graduate transfer, aiming to take advantage of the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility. Curry declined that option, ending his injury-plagued playing career at the U, but he'll be a Gophers grad assistant this fall.
"He's like my brother, but he kind of made me mad," Curry joked about Willis. "Now he's coming back, and I said I'm done with playing basketball."
Willis is back, but the team he's rejoining looks nothing like it did his last go-round in 2019-20. Sophomore forward Isaiah Ihnen is the only player remaining from that team. Everyone else either graduated, transferred, or left early for the pros. So, Curry's presence was a must to have "somebody I trust," Willis said.
The Gophers were searching the transfer portal for a veteran point guard. Willis spent more time as a floor leader at Charleston than he did at Minnesota playing with Marcus Carr. He averaged 13 points, three assists and shot 40% from three-point range last season.
He'll have to file for a waiver with the NCAA for immediate eligibility since the new one-time transfer rule doesn't apply to him. But Willis has a strong case since he got his bachelor's degree from the U.
"It's the perfect situation for me," Willis said. "[Johnson] needed an experienced lead guard who can facilitate and score. Just do a little bit of everything. Someone who just knows the league and can come in and be a leader the first year."
Recruited by Johnson
Johnson recruited both Willis and Curry while he was an assistant on Richard Pitino's staff, following their Arkansas Wings squad on the summer AAU circuit.
"I started playing with [Curry] with the Arkansas Wings back to when we were 13," said Curry, who won the Nike Peach Jam with Willis in 2015. "We've been close ever since. We do everything together."
They didn't follow each other to college at first, though.
Curry, a 6-9 forward at Southwest Christian in Little Rock, Ark., eventually signed with the U's 2016 class. Willis, a combo guard at Fayetteville High, picked Vanderbilt over the Gophers.
Their paths didn't cross again on the hardwood until the Gophers beat Vanderbilt in Sioux Falls, S.D. during their freshman year. Two years later, Curry convinced Willis to transfer to Minnesota.
The plan was for them to play together after Willis sat out the 2018-19 season under NCAA transfer rules, but Curry suffered a second torn anterior cruciate ligament in a preseason practice. Willis battled through injuries himself, but he averaged 8.9 points as a starter in 2019-20. His career-high was 21 points in a Gophers home win vs. rival Wisconsin.
"It was the best two years of my life," Willis said about his first stint as a Gopher. "I know the culture and Gopher Nation is just crazy. It's one of kind. It's going to be a blessing to be able to experience that in my last year."
Phone calls between Willis and Curry happened almost daily last season. Willis watched as many Gophers games as possible on TV to follow his buddy's latest comeback from injury.
"It was cool to see him out there," Willis said. "I know it wasn't the experience he wanted. But I'm sure he was just happy to be out there after all he's been through."
Player-coach in waiting
When Curry announced his playing career was over after last season, Willis sent text messages to Curry's mother, Audrea, with words of encouragement about his future.
"That made me cry," Curry's mother said. "It was about how good of a job I did with Eric and [what] a great person he turned out to be. And that he would support Eric for life."
Willis and Curry were college roommates when Curry was rehabbing the last of three surgeries. At that time, Curry, who mentored All-America center and future NBA player Daniel Oturu, started to seriously think about a coaching career after graduating.
"I knew he wanted to be a coach after the second time he got hurt," Willis said. "He was basically a player-coach. He was teaching the younger guys and helping them out."
Curry's excited to be starting his coaching career with Willis by his side. They won't get to play together, but just teaming up again with the Gophers is rewarding in itself.
"It's amazing when you sit down to think about it," Curry said. "That's like my brother. He always wanted to be around me, and I always wanted to be around him."