With under two minutes to play in the Gophers exhibition game Tuesday in Italy, Daniel Oturu snatched an offensive rebound near the basket. Instead of looking for his shot, he zipped a kick-out pass to Payton Willis at the top of the key.
Willis, a Vanderbilt transfer, knocked down arguably the biggest shot of the game on a three-pointer against Stella Azzurra Academy going into the final minutes of the 84-79 win.
It was a game where Richard Pitino and his coaching staff went from cringing to clapping, as the Gophers erased a 16-point deficit in the first half.
Without putting too much stock into one exhibition game against a third-tier Italian League team, Tuesday revealed a bit why Willis and Drexel graduate transfer Alihan Demir are Minnesota’s answer for replacing Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy this season.
Willis is four inches shorter than the 6-foot-8 Coffey, but he’s still a bigger guard (6-4, 200) who can handle the ball and facilitate while also scoring and defending the perimeter. His efficiency was off the charts Tuesday with 14 points on 6-for-11 shooting, grabbing six rebounds and leading the team with five assists and zero turnovers.
That stat line was similar to what Coffey put up regularly during his three years with the Gophers, who used him at point guard, shooting guard and the wing. Willis played point guard and off the ball at Vanderbilt.
“Payton is a skilled guy,” Pitino said last week. “I don’t know if he’s as good off the bounce as Amir is, but he’s a pretty good shooter. He’ll probably fill that role with what we need.”
Filling Murphy’s spot at power forward was something that attracted Demir to signing with Minnesota. He’s been competing with fellow senior Michael Hurt for that spot in summer practices, especially with junior Eric Curry still not fully cleared for contact.
Demir admitted before joining the team that he’s not anything like Murphy, a 6-7 athletic bruiser who racked up double-doubles in his sleep. They’re much different players, but the 6-9, 230-pound Turkish forward recorded a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds Tuesday, including a Murphy-like seven offensive boards.
“I wouldn’t consider myself the most physical guy, banging and bullying people inside,” Demir said this offseason. “I’m more finesse. Obviously, we have different playing styles and he was captain. I’m going to try to fill in his shoes from a leadership standpoint. I’ll be one of the more experience guys, so I’ll try to help everybody with my experience.”
The Gophers need a lot more experience playing together defenisvely. They looked disconnected guarding and switching Tuesday, especially when Stella Azzurra pulled ahead by double digits shooting 60 percent from the field in the first quarter, but there was some definite offensive chemistry.
Demir and Oturu, who led the Gophers with 16 points, could develop into a dangerous frontcourt tandem with their ability to pass and stretch the floor. They both hit threes in the game (when was the last time that happened with two Gophers players 6-9 or taller?)
Coaches have called Willis the most consistent player this summer. He is very similar to starting sophomore guard Gabe Kalscheur in that regard. They both bring effort on both ends and a business-like approach to the game. Willis’ work ethic and gym-rat mentality has helped him bond well with his teammates. The same has been said of Demir.
No starting jobs are handed out in August on a foreign tour, but Pitino is encouraged by what Willis and Demir have shown all summer when it comes to bringing maturity and experience.
Willis played two years in the Southeastern Conference, but he also was with the Gophers last season. Demir was a productive starter for two seasons in the Colonial Athletic. He's still adjusting overall after joining the team this summer, but he's further along than previous grad transfers.
“Alihan is still trying to figure it all out,” Pitino said. “But I will say for a fifth-year senior, he’s jumped in and is comfortable and is playing as well as any fifth-year senior at this stage since I’ve had one. Fifth-year seniors are hard. He seems to be doing very well. Very skilled, fits what we’re trying to do and we need him to do that.”
The Gophers play their last two games on Thursday against Tuscan Select in Florence and Saturday vs. Como Select in Bologna. Check in later for updates on live streaming for these games.