Gophers basketball benefiting from point guard Payton Willis in 'attack mode'

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  • Eric Curry
    All-American college football player, professional football player, defensive lineman

Dec. 21—Before Payton Willis assumed his new role as the Gophers' starting point guard this season, first-year head coach Ben Johnson stressed in preseason that the former shooting guard needed to stay in attack mode.

"Sometimes I'm a little bit too unselfish," Willis acknowledged in November. Fellow fifth-year player Eric Curry, sitting next to Willis at the time, shook his head at his close friend's comment.

"He is very unselfish," Curry added. "He is making the extra pass here and there, and I be like, 'bro, shoot that.' ... I'm always on him about stuff like that."

Johnson and Curry haven't had to ride Willis on this topic this season. Willis is second in scoring (16.5 points per game) and first in assists (3.5) for the Gophers (9-1) entering their game against Wisconsin-Green Bay (2-8) at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Williams Arena.

Willis reached 999 career points in the U's 79-71 victory over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Dec. 14. He didn't know how he close he was to reaching 1,000 during the game and wished he could have known to go even more into attack mode.

"Yeah, they told me after the game," Willis said last week about the near milestone. "I was kind of mad. I was like, 'Y'all could have told me during the game.' But yeah, it's all good."

Johnson has liked Willis's mind-set all season, but especially in the 81-76 win at Mississippi State. The 6-foot-4 Fayetteville, Ark., native had 24 points (8 for 15 shooting) with seven assists to two turnovers on the road against a strong SEC team.

"I thought he really had a good handle on being able to get his (points) but also set guys up, being able to make the right play when it's needed, kind of that dagger play," Johnson said of the Mississippi State game. "That, to me, is in attack mode. It's knowing when to go for the kill. He's growing in that position every day. The kid wants it. He's done a really good job, and now the cool part is: How good can he become?"

Willis' per-game stats at Minnesota have gone up from his first year, 2019-20, to this season: Scoring increased from 8.9 to 16.5 and assists from 1.9 to 3.5. Willis, who was an off guard earlier in his career, had 338 points in his first two years at Vanderbilt, has 406 points in one-plus season at Minnesota, and had 255 last season at College of Charleston.

Curry is the only vestige from Willis's first stint in Minnesota. "I definitely see a different Payton," Curry said. "I would say now he has that chip on his shoulder where he's demanding a lot more of himself. Of course he's still in the moment, but he's worried about that next phase of his life. He just wants to create the best opportunities for him after his, so he's going to play to the best of his ability this year."

Johnson called Willis' number at the end of regulation against Princeton on Nov. 14, but Willis missed a layup. It didn't deter the Gophers' co-captain, who responded to his miss by scoring nine of his career-high 29 points in the second overtime of a 87-80 win.

Coming out of the Asheville Championship, Johnson pointed out a few pick-and-roll situations where Willis' reads could have been better. Johnson's message: "You can't think score all the time. Your mind has to be score, but you have to be able to make a read and make the right plays and make the right pass. He's progressively getting better at that. That is what we talked to him a lot about. If there is something there that I don't think he saw, point it out, make sure he's seen it and then address it in practice. I want him to be a total player."

Willis struggled in the Big Ten opener against Michigan State, producing nine points on 3-of-13 shooting. Big Ten Network analyst Brian Butch, a former center at Wisconsin, called that game at The Barn and saw a bigger picture.

"He didn't play great, but he was getting others involved," Butch said in an interview with the Pioneer Press. "When they made the comeback, he was a big part of understanding who was hot and how to get the energy going. I thought on the defensive end he was very disruptive, and it led to some steals and some leak outs."

Willis distributed five assists, had no turnovers and added two steals in the 75-67 loss to the Spartans. Minnesota bounced back with a 75-65 win over Michigan on Dec. 11, and Willis added 17 points in Ann Arbor.

"Any good team needs veteran leadership, but they also need a point guard," Butch said. "You look at what Minnesota has done. They have surprised everybody, myself included. It's because they have leadership at the point guard position, who understands when they need it and how to get it."

BRIEFLY

Johnson said Tuesday the Gophers are not dealing with COVID-19 infections as members of the team work toward receiving their booster vaccines. "As of now, knock on wood, we are great," he said. "Credit to our guys, they have taken all the necessary steps to put us in a position where we are going to be able to keep playing." ... Michigan was the latest Big Ten team to be affected by the pandemic with its scheduled Tuesday game against Purdue-Fort Wayne cancelled. ... The Gophers are 35th in the NET ranking, while Green Bay is 333rd out of 358 Division I programs.

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