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Could Marcus Carr become the best point guard in Gophers history?

An incredible look at the sensational season the sophomore is having.

“A hell of a player" is how Michigan State coach Tom Izzo described him.

“What he does on the basketball court is pretty special,” was Illinois coach Brad Underwood’s take.

“One and two on every scouting report, and they still find a way to score,” said Penn State coach Pat Chambers on potential NBA first-round draft pick Daniel Oturu, and another Gophers’ player.

That other player is point guard Marcus Carr. The sophomore transfer from Pittsburgh is seventh in the Big Ten in scoring, at 15.5 per game, and, more notably, second in the conference in assists, at 6.8 per game. 

His dazzling 35-point, 8-assist night against Ohio State carried the U to its biggest win in nearly a decade. He’s outdueled All-Big Ten defensive team selection Zavier Simpson to the tune of 12 assists and zero turnovers, and buried a game-winning three for the Gophers’ first win in Columbus since 2005. 

Last week, he directed all 40 minutes of his team’s thrashing of Wisconsin, finishing one rebound shy of Minnesota’s first triple-double in 44 years.

For a program that in recent years has seen Amir Coffey not mesh playing on-ball, Isaiah Washington not click, Jarvis Johnson not get medical clearance, Justin Cobbs not enjoy being away from home, Al Nolen not stay academically eligible, and Blake Hoffarber not able to run the offense as his replacement, Carr is a welcome answer to a long-lingering question.

Could he become the Gophers’ best point guard…ever?

It’s not as crazy as it seems. Let’s dive in.

Al Nolen, in my opinion the best pure point guard in recent memory, while a better defender, wasn’t nearly the offensive weapon Carr is. Adam Boone and DeAndre Mathieu, both solid players, were simply not as talented. Kevin Burleson is among the program’s leaders in assists, but my lasting memory of him will always be slapping the floor as his man immediately drove by and he attempted to get back into a defensive stance. 

The only 2000s-era comparison is Nate Mason, an All-Big Ten First Team performer who’s currently second all-time at the U in assists and sixth in scoring. And no disrespect to Mason, but Carr is a much better player.

First and foremost, Carr doesn’t need to score to significantly influence the game. Against Oklahoma State, for example, he shot just 2-12 but racked up 11 assists and 7 rebounds, playing all 40 minutes of the blowout win. He’s also a much better passer, getting his teammates more involved, more consistently – something invaluable on the off-shooting nights every guard is certain to have. 

Accordingly, he’s had his shooting struggles, but they more often come from failing to finish at the rim rather than settling for bad shots, a habit Mason never kicked, going 3-11 on jumpers his final collegiate game against a Rutgers team that went 3-15 in the Big Ten.

The differences in their offensive games are most clearly reflected in conference play, where Carr not only gets to the free-throw line more – 6.2 attempts/game compared to Mason’s 4.2 average – and creates more scoring opportunities by opening up the offense, but simply makes more of his shots, with his true shooting percentage of .523 a contrast to Mason’s falling under .490 three of four years, and an overall shooting percentage of 39%, something Mason matched just once. 

Carr does this amid a lower usage rate, and is also putting up a higher rate of defensive win shares, yielding a player efficiency rating of 21.2, well above Mason’s four-year average of 17.9 and his high of 19.9 during the All-Big Ten campaign.

Of course, there are a number of excellent point guards who played long before Mason.

Eric Harris, one of the Gophers’ best-ever defenders, ran point for their best-ever team, the 1997 Bobby Jackson-led squad that made the Final Four. Melvin Newbern was a major part of the surprise 1989 Sweet Sixteen team and its follow-up run to the Elite Eight the next year. Ariel McDonald holds the career assists record at 547, while Ray Williams’ 5.7/game is easily the program’s best mark. And Flip Saunders’ reputation precedes itself. 

Unfortunately, nearly all of those guys graduated before I was born, so I can’t compare Carr’s game to theirs offhand.

What is available, however, are their numbers. Arbitrary as they might be, they’re a constant for everyone – and Carr holds up pretty well. Through 23 games, Carr has 154 assists, averaging 6.7 per game. Looking at the record books, only six guys have ever had that many in a season, and only Williams has averaged more than 4.5

With seven remaining scheduled games, plus at least one in the Big Ten tournament and another in a post-season tournament, Carr getting just half his average going forward would break both records, while maintaining his pace would shatter them, with only Williams’ 5.7/game in 1976-77 and McDonald’s 179 total in 1993-94 even matching 80% percent of such productivity.

That’s not all. McDonald’s 547 total assists is easily the high-mark, and a simple extrapolation of his numbers suggests that, should Carr stay the starting point guard through graduation, he could break that career record in three years

Moreover, Gophers’ history features just two 1,000-point/500-rebound/200-assist members: Willie Burton and Sam Jacobson, both four-year starters. Carr’s rebounding numbers also have him on pace to joint that club in, again, just three years.

A very bright future

Part of this is surely his logging so many minutes, yet for a guy playing his first year in the Big Ten it’s pretty incredible. And therein lies the biggest thing Carr has going for him – his future. Richard Pitino mentions Carr being only a sophomore so much you almost want to roll your eyes, but he does so for a very valid reason: there’s quite a bit of room for improvement.

Developments in college basketball can be radical, whether apparent this year in Iowa State’s Tyrsese Haliburton roughly doubling his scoring and assist numbers and going from intriguing player to likely NBA lottery pick, Iowa’s Luka Garza morphing from solid big man into legitimate national player of the year contender, or Oturu, who has perhaps experienced the most dramatic transformation of anyone in the NCAA. 

While Carr doesn’t necessarily have the physical tools of those guys, he’s clearly talented and, by all accounts, an incredibly hard worker – a combo almost assuring advancements in at least some parts of his game.

In fact, that’s already happening.

The low point for both the Gophers and their point guard this year might have been the double-overtime loss to Purdue, where Carr turned the ball over seven times. In the 12 games before Purdue, he finished six of them with at least four turnovers and gave it up twice or less in just four contests. In the nine games since, he’s had two or fewer turnovers seven times, capped by the 40-minute, 0-turnover Michigan game.

His shooting has also improved from early in the year, with splits in Big Ten play at .390/.374/.797 compared to overall totals of .374/.333/.727. More specifically, his three-point shooting jumped to 39% in January after a 31% clip in November, and over the last seven games he’s drilled three or more shots from distance three times, going 9-18 across those games, after doing so just four times in his first sixteen games, on 12-28 attempts. 

That’s a small sample size, to be sure, but one indicative of a larger pattern.

Take a look at Carr’s ten-best performances this year:

  • 2/8: 20 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 7-15 shooting, 1 turnover versus Penn State
  • 2/5: 12 points, 10 assists, 9 rebounds, 5-15 shooting, 3 turnovers versus Wisconsin
  • 1/23: 21 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 7-13 shooting, 1 turnover versus Ohio State
  • 1/15: 27 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds, 7-17 shooting, 2 turnovers versus Penn State
  • 1/12: 21 points, 12 assists, 4 rebounds, 7-13 shooting, 0 turnovers versus Michigan
  • 1/2: 27 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 7-16 shooting, 7 turnovers versus Purdue
  • 12/15: 35 points, 7 assists, 3 rebounds, 12-17 shooting, 5 turnovers versus Ohio State
  • 12/2: 24 points, 9 assists, 5 rebounds, 8-16 shooting, 2 turnovers versus Clemson
  • 11/9: 16 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 7-18 shooting, 4 turnovers versus Oklahoma
  • 11/5: 18 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds, 5-13 shooting, 2 turnovers versus Cleveland State

Five of those have come over the last eight games, suggesting not only that he’s getting better, but that he’s improving as the Big Ten season wears on – a far-from-common theme for most guards playing their first year in the physical conference. And also a marked improvement for Carr, who scored in double-figures seven of his first 11 games at Pitt but did so just eight times over the season’s final 21.

Carr is not a perfect player. His defense is inconsistent; he misses far too many shots; he’s susceptible to a good game plan, like that deployed by Rutgers which took him almost entirely out of the game; and he’s struggled against Butler, Iowa, Michigan State, and Illinois, this year’s best opponents.

But if at the beginning of the season you were told that Carr, who didn’t play last year, had a chance to break the Gophers’ single-season assist record, be an all-conference player in the country’s deepest league, and have his team – picked to finish a distant 11th in the Big Ten – in contention for an NCAA tournament berth, would that not be a pretty remarkable outcome?

His production is unprecedented, his work ethic is unquestioned, his talent is undeniable, and, for all intents and purposes, he’s just getting started. Just 23 games into his career in the maroon and gold, Marcus Carr has already re-written the narrative about point guard play at Williams Arena. Now we’ll get to see if he fundamentally changes it.

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