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When Dave Thorson coached Ben Johnson at DeLaSalle in the late 1990s, he remembers a calm and collected lead guard who could score, facilitate and show the confidence and poise to make big shots when needed.

Now that Thorson is an assistant on Johnson's staff with the Gophers this season, they both see lots of the same qualities in senior guard Payton Willis.

"People say the best point guards are connected to their coach," Thorson said. "The first thing I think of is that they're both extremely poised. And you don't see them sweat."

Willis resembled a stone-faced assassin when he carved up Rutgers for a career-high 32 points with a school-record-tying eight three-pointers in Saturday's 68-65 win at Williams Arena.

After the game, there was a bit more emotion. Willis threw up his hands and shouted in celebration when the final buzzer sounded on a surprising victory with Minnesota down three starters because of injury and illness.

"That's not how he is," Johnson said with a smirk. "He's the quiet guy in the room."

The Gophers (11-5, 2-5 in the Big Ten), who host No. 16 Ohio State on Thursday, get excited when Willis comes out of his shell, especially when directing his teammates.

It pays to have a head coach and point guard on the same page and as even-keeled under pressure as Johnson and Willis. But they also both can be great communicators in their own way. Coaches encourage Willis to be a vocal leader more often in huddles because he's good at it.

"I definitely feel like I'm an extension of him on the court," Willis said about Johnson. "He just lets me be myself leading. He just gives me confidence to say what I see to my teammates out on the floor. I'm not a big vocal guy, but at times when I see stuff, I just let people know."

High basketball IQ was Johnson's strength as a player. Willis is similarly a coach on the floor for the Gophers. He knows where all of his teammates need to be and makes sure they get there.

"He's got the ball in his hands a lot," Thorson said. "And especially the way we play, it's not easy. We have an NBA-style offensive attack and there's a lot that you have to process. There's a lot you have to remember."

In December, Johnson and Thorson could hear All-Star point guard Chris Paul constantly conversing with teammates and coaches when they watched the Phoenix Suns play the Timberwolves. The Gophers used Paul as an example to Willis about not being shy talking about plays and adjustments, especially with Johnson, who played the same position.

"I feel like it comes natural," Willis said of communicating now. "I'm going to speak when it's effective."

Johnson, who transferred to the Gophers after two years at Northwestern, also had a career-high 32 points with the U, in 2003 vs. Furman, playing all 40 minutes like Willis did last Saturday.

With leading scorer Jamison Battle and starting guard E.J. Stephens out against Rutgers, Willis called his number often. He pulled up for deep threes. He attacked the lane and hit contested shots off ball screens. It was reminiscent of his 29 points in a double-overtime win vs. Princeton and his 24 points in a win at Mississippi State earlier in the season.

"He hit some unguardable shots," Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. "I thought we did as good of a job guarding him at times as we could."

Willis, who played his first two seasons at Vanderbilt before transferring to Minnesota, left for the College of Charleston (S.C.) last season to have a bigger role in the offense. He was basically a sidekick to All-Big Ten guard Marcus Carr in 2019-20. Willis didn't hesitate to return to the Gophers this season, though, with Carr gone and Johnson needing his own point guard.

Stephens, who will return Thursday, and fellow senior Luke Loewe share leadership responsibilities in the backcourt but in a separate way. Willis is so connected to his head coach that during the game he knows what Johnson's thinking.

"He's called plays on his own," Johnson said. "He just has an understanding of what I want it to look like."