MINNEAPOLIS — Before his senior season had even ended, Gophers center Eric Curry had already made up his mind about whether to take the extra season of eligibility the NCAA was granting because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On March 5, five days before the Gophers would play Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, Curry said, “I just came to peace with not being able to play basketball.”
Then a funny thing happened.
“My body, it just recovered, I guess,” Curry said Wednesday afternoon. “It was great.”
Curry, a 6-foot-9 post player who was one of former coach Richard Pitino’s best recruits, had been through a lot since matriculating to Minnesota in 2016, losing two entire seasons to knee surgery and a large chunk of another season to a foot injury. By the time last year’s regular season ended, he was ready for it to end.
After averaging 11.2 minutes in the first 15 Big Ten games, Curry was thrust into the starting lineup — a small starting lineup — when 7-foot center Liam Robbins was lost to an ankle injury at the end of February. Those minutes sky-rocketed to 31.2 a game for Curry in the final five regular-season games.
“I was tired after that stretch, just with the injuries we had and me playing all those minutes at the end of the year,” he said. “That recovery was big for me. My body feels amazing.”
It didn’t hurt that Pitino’s successor was Ben Johnson, who first recruited Curry to Minnesota out of Southwest Christian Academy in Memphis, Tenn., before leaving to take an assistant job at Xavier. Johnson said last month he didn’t have to recruit Curry all over again, but maybe that’s not the full story.
“He gave me a strong pitch and he stayed in my ear for a little bit after,” Curry said.
But as it has been throughout his college career, Curry’s body made the final decision. It was why he was ready to leave last February, and why he’ll be back on the court Monday when an entirely new Minnesota team opens its 2021-22 season with an exhibition against Concordia-St. Paul on Monday at Williams Arena.
It will be the Gophers’ first game in front of a crowd since their 2019-20 season was cut short by COVID after one Big Ten tournament game.
“I know they missed being in the Barn and cheering for us,” Curry said. “So, I’m kind of expecting big crowds, especially with the new team. They want to get out and see the team we’ve put together.”
That certainly rings true. While expectations for Johnson’s first team aren’t high, there is definitely a curiosity about a team that will play a full Big Ten schedule with an almost entirely new roster. Curry is the only player on the roster who played for the Gophers last season.
Monday will mark the team’s first real game together, although the Gophers played an exhibition at Oklahoma on Oct. 23.
Asked what his expectations are for the first game, senior off guard Elijah Stephens said, “I expect to win.”
Curry and Stephens are two of eight seniors on the roster, which would be a great sign for a program if they hadn’t all just met one another over the summer. Among them is Payton Willis, who played two seasons for Minnesota before transferring to College of Charleston for his senior season.
So, he and Curry have actually played together.
“I wouldn’t say I was pushing him too hard,” said Willis, who committed to Minnesota before Curry made his decision to return. “I wanted him to do what’s best for him at the end of the day. But him coming back means everything to us with his experience the past five years, knowing the ins and outs of the Big Ten. It’s great.”
Last month, Johnson acknowledged the Gophers “don’t have a lot of room for error,” and injuries to big men Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen have made them small. Fox, a 6-9 Division II All-American at Northern State in South Dakota, will miss the season after knee surgery. So will Ihnen, a 6-9 junior who played sparingly for the Gophers last season.
That leaves Curry and freshman Treyton Thomas, a 6-11 center from Glenwood.
Johnson will lean on Curry as a player and a coach on the floor, and he already has talked about limiting the big man’s minutes, in games and in practice, to keep him healthy for a full season. For his part, Curry says he’ll do whatever Johnson and trainer Ron Dotson ask him to do.
But he also feels better than he has in years. In the end, Johnson’s best recruiting pitch was probably Curry’s body.
“It was more of an individual thing that went on in my head,” Curry said. “This is the first time I’ve never had to worry about an injury going into a season — since I was a freshman, I would say. So, that was a big part of it for me, just knowing that I’m going into a healthy season and I feel good again.”