These days, Gophers basketball coaches see quite a bit of a familiar and welcome sight:
Andre Hollins’ smile.
After a left ankle injury caused the guard to limp through much of the last two months of last season, that grin is the only sign assistant coach Dan McHale needs to tell him things are back to normal.
“I think he’s the Andre Hollins that the fans remember from a while ago right now,” McHale said. “He has a bounce-back in his game, he’s healthy.”
This summer, the senior guard has been the first player to walk in the Bierman gym in the morning and the last to leave after practice. He also has taken on a larger leadership role.
It’s a far cry from last season’s finish.
Hollins averaged 16.2 points in his first 19 games. Against Wisconsin at Williams Arena on Jan. 22, however, Hollins went up for a jump shot in the first five seconds of the game and landed on a defender’s foot.
The ensuing ankle sprain was severe. The pictures Hollins tweeted revealed a joint so swollen it more closely resembled an eggplant than a foot.
Officially, he missed only two games. Practically, he wasn’t the same player for most of the rest of the season.
“I was hurting pretty bad,” Hollins said. “It was a struggle. I’ll never forget that time in my life.”
But the Gophers lost consecutive games against Nebraska and Northwestern without their veteran guard and were desperately fighting to stay in the race for an NCAA tournament berth.
Hollins couldn’t stay away. He returned to join the team at Purdue, a 77-74 three-overtime loss on Feb. 5, loosening the shoelaces on his sneakers and wincing his way through 36 minutes.
“I really wanted to win — that’s the reason I came back so early,” Hollins said. “I couldn’t sit there on the bench anymore. I couldn’t just sit there and watch my team. I wanted to help them.”
Said coach Richard Pitino: “He’s the type of kid where he doesn’t complain. Really, really tough kid — you probably wouldn’t notice it because he smiles so much — but he is a really tough kid.”
But the hours on the court took their toll. The swelling stayed in Hollins’ ankle and he struggled to regain his versatility. His numbers sank correspondingly; he averaged 11.3 points per game the rest of the way. Perhaps most concerning was the departure of his signature asset.
“I don’t know if he smiled at the end of the year,” McHale said. “And this is a kid that smiles all day long.”
After the Gophers closed out the season by winning the NIT championship — he smiled on that day at least — Hollins took a break and then went to work rehabbing.
He worked with strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown to stretch and strengthen the joint and his hip, which had gotten jammed after he shifted his weight around in awkward ways to avoid putting pressure on the ankle. He took ice baths. He pulled out a spongy mat and practiced yoga. One day in May, he forgot all about the injury and went up for a dunk, off his left foot.
And out came the smile.
“You can see that he’s having a lot of fun right now,” McHale said. “He’s playing as good as he has since I’ve been here.”
With the ankle no longer a concern, Hollins can focus on other things. In particular: his explosiveness, the Gophers’ summer project for him.
After workouts, Hollins will stay in the gym with Brown, pushing around 90-pound plates on a sled for 10-second spurts.
“I have a chip on my shoulder just because of the way we finished [in the Big Ten standings],” he said. “I’ve never finished in the top four, I’ve never won a Big Ten championship. That chip is always there. … I just want to win.”