Among members of the Gophers men’s basketball team accompanying Richard Pitino on the U’s State Fair stage Monday was Payton Willis, the only player not from Minnesota.
The Fayetteville, Ark., native didn’t know what to say when asked about his favorite State Fair food.
“Just tell them Pronto Pups,” Pitino joked about the popular corn dog spot nearby, not knowing if Willis actually liked it.
The 6-foot-4 junior guard seemed like a wide-eyed rookie at the Great Minnesota Get-Together. Still, he has the most playing experience of any backcourt player for the Gophers entering the 2019-20 season. Following his sit-out year last season after transferring from Vanderbilt, Willis has stood out among the newcomers this summer.
“I feel like my two years at Vandy definitely helped as far as experience goes,” Willis said. “So, I should be ready when it comes to November.”
The Gophers didn’t have to wait until November, though, to see Willis’ potential impact with the losses of veteran guards Dupree McBrayer and Amir Coffey. Willis was unofficially named team MVP by Pitino after Minnesota’s three-game foreign tour to Italy earlier this month.
“We’re losing so many major pieces in Dupree, Amir and [Jordan Murphy] who were focal points to an NCAA tournament team,” Pitino said. “Those newcomers have got to be ready. Payton was solid in Italy.”
Pitino pointed out that “not beating yourself” is an important part of being able to quickly earn trust from coaches and teammates. Willis did that, leading the Gophers with over two steals and five assists per game in Italy. He also had 16 assists with only two turnovers.
Willis started 16 games for Vanderbilt from 2016 to ’18, but the U’s trip to Europe enabled him to build more chemistry with Pittsburgh transfer Marcus Carr and returning starter Gabe Kalscheur. They will likely be the three starters in the backcourt.
“Payton’s just like me,” Kalscheur said Monday. “He works hard. We go to the gym together as much as we can. We room together. That chemistry is going to help a lot on the floor.”
Carr is the starting point guard. Kalscheur is the team’s top shooter and defender. Willis can facilitate, defend and be a three-point shooting threat. The Gophers hope he will replace some of Coffey’s versatility on both ends.
“I’ll probably guard some bigger guards on the defensive end,” Willis said. “Offensively, I’ll try to space the floor with my shooting and playmaking. I’ll get other people involved and get them open shots. Whatever coach needs me to do I’ll do it. But I like being able to do all types of things.”
Despite looking a little like an outsider at the State Fair on Monday, Willis said he feels at home in Minnesota, especially with his former AAU teammate Eric Curry on the team. Curry, a 6-9 redshirt junior, could join his buddy Willis in a game soon after recovering from foot surgery in the spring.
“He’s full to go now,” Willis said. “So, I feel like he’ll be back to his old self soon before the season starts.”