After a sophomore season that was decent, but in his view not good enough, Marcus Carr returned home to Toronto to double down on his college basketball career.
The 21-year-old junior at Minnesota worked out two to three times a day. He focused on diet and sleep. He practised meditation.
Carr arrived back on campus in the fall a leaner and quicker version of himself, and the work clearly paid off -- he's emerged as one of the NCAA's top point guards this season.
Carr's not the type to chronicle his work -- his social media presence is virtually non-existent -- so his off-season transformation might have taken some by surprise. But not his brother Duane Notice.
"He likes to let his game do the talking, so after COVID hit, he came home and I saw him work in the gym like never before, taking it to a whole new level mentally and physically, trying to get the upper hand so that when the season came around, he'd be ready," said Notice, a former Raptors 905 guard.
"To see him play this well, I'm really proud of him. But I saw it coming."
Carr was named one of the 10 finalists this week for the Bob Cousy award, given to the best point guard in the NCAA. He leads Minnesota with 20.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game, and has been key in leading the Gophers (11-5) to wins over Big Ten rivals Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa and Michigan.
Carr entered the NBA draft but then withdrew his name, and said he used the feedback he gained from that experience to fuel his off-season work.
"It triggered in my mind that I could be this close to reaching my lifelong dream," he said. "So, it was kind of it's now or never, I took it head on and just went as hard as I could. Harder than I ever knew I could go before."
Vidal Massiah, who's coached Carr since he was 12, said the chance to spend a few weeks working one-on-one with the Gophers guard over the summer was a silver lining of COVID-19.
"He really put an emphasis on his conditioning, his body fat percentage, changing his eating habits, really trying to be a pro. So that that's kind of where we probably spend most of our time in terms of conversation, what needed to happen," said Massiah, who coaches the Northern Kings AAU program.
"He really took those fundamentals to heart. It wasn't rocket science: Eat better food, make better choices, and keep working out, and get your body in the best shape of your life."
Massiah is a big believer in the benefits of meditation, and said he first explored it back in 2003 when he signed his first pro contract overseas.
"I dived into learning how your mind and body connect in regards to performance. Everyone says basketball is 90 percent mental," he said. "It's really having that mental and emotional balance to stay in the moment.
"That was kind of the secret in my back pocket."
Massiah sent a book on meditation to Carr when he was playing high school basketball at Montverde Academy in Florida.
"I'm really happy he's taking (meditation) seriously," Massiah said. "There are games I'll text him after and say, 'Hey keep working on your mental game, I can see it coming through in the way you're playing. You're totally present, you're not distracted. You're not worried about missed shots or turnovers. You're just fully engaged.'"
The six-foot-two, 195-pound Carr is an imposing presence on the floor. He credits his years playing in the family driveway in Vaughan, Ont., with Notice. The two would watch games, then head outside to imitate what they'd seen. Carr might be Chris Paul. Notice, who's five years Carr's senior, would often be Vince Carter.
"He just used to beat me up," Carr said with a laugh. "That's why I'm able to take the beating on the court now."
Notice was playing with the Hamilton Honey Badgers in the CEBL Summer Series in July when he ruptured his Achilles tendon. Carr, who'd torn his ACL in high school, called his big brother that night in hospital with some advice.
"He told me what to expect throughout my rehab process, he said I'm going to have negative days and down days, but to stay the course," Notice said. "It was cool to have that mentor-mentee relationship switch around. He inspires me and I inspire him. It's like we're both each other's big brothers."
Minnesota plays Purdue on Saturday.
Carr is one of numerous Canadians playing well in an NCAA season rocked by COVID-19.
Andrew Nembhard of Aurora, Ont., has led Gonzaga to an undefeated season thus far. Vancouver's Fardaws Aimaq (Utah Valley) leads the NCAA in rebounding with 14.9 a game. Josh Primo of Mississauga, Ont., (Alabama) was named Southeastern Conference freshman of the week on Monday.
Quincy Guerrier (Syracuse), AJ Lawson (South Carolina) and Emanuel Miller (Texas A&M) are other Canadian players to watch.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 28, 2021.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press