Given the question, Richard Pitino seemed as flummoxed as anyone.
After one of his star guards, Austin Hollins, went 1-for-5 from the field at Penn State, the senior’s second lackluster game in Big Ten play, the Gophers men’s basketball coach could only guess at the reasons.
Against Michigan in the Big Ten opener, when Hollins had only two points and three rebounds, Pitino said his 6-4 difference-maker was simply taking shots he wasn’t taking in practice.
After dominating three days later against Purdue — with a stellar 18-point, nine-rebound performance, hearkening memories of his play in the nonconference schedule — Hollins was kept out of rhythm against Penn State on Jan. 8 (four points, four rebounds) by foul trouble, Pitino said. And it appeared the Nittany Lions’ zone was bothering him too, the coach added.
“Maybe that’s it,” Pitino said with a shrug. “I don’t know.”
The recent struggles of Hollins — who continued his strange slump with seven points at Michigan State on Saturday — are hard to understand. After averaging 13.5 points through nonconference play, Hollins is averaging only 7.8 through four Big Ten games — and without his showing against Purdue, the number falls to only 4.3 in the other three games.
A year ago, Hollins was averaging 12.5 points per game through four Big Ten games.
At the same time, while Hollins had a big steal near the end of the Penn State game to help the Gophers secure a victory, he hasn’t played well in crucial moments in general, turning over the ball at costly times — something Pitino has talked about with the senior, the coach said.
His teammates expect Hollins to pop out of his scoring funk at some point. The guard, who is one of the Gophers’ four captains (after junior center Elliott Eliason was named one Wednesday), has long been documented as one of the hardest workers in the program.
“His shot hasn’t been falling, but that’s fine — we’re very confident in him,” junior guard Andre Hollins said.
In the meantime, however, the Gophers have missed Hollins’ offense. The team heads into Thursday’s game against Ohio State at 2-2 in the Big Ten, with both losses coming by close margins in games where Hollins scored little.
Against Michigan, the Gophers lost 63-60. At Michigan State, the Gophers had to score at the end of regulation to force overtime after leading by 10 at one point in the second half and eventually lost 87-75. A spark from Hollins could have made the difference in each.
A 4-0 start to the conference schedule would have painted a different picture for the Gophers, one in which an NCAA tournament berth would seem likely. Instead, they head into three challenging games — vs. No. 11 Ohio State, at No. 14 Iowa, vs. No. 3 Wisconsin, teams with a combined record of 45-6 — under pressure to win at least one or be buried at 2-5 in the league.
“We’re not going to be a good team without Austin being a great scoring option for us, we know that,” senior guard Malik Smith said after the Purdue game.
Through most of the schedule, Hollins has been that great option. After 13 games, it seemed clear the Germantown, Tenn., native was ready to take his game to the next level. He was using his athleticism more than ever, delighting fans at Williams Arena regularly with highlight-reel dunks and attacking the boards relentlessly, averaging 7.2 rebounds through the nonconference schedule.
It’s fair to argue the Gophers wouldn’t have started the league schedule in such good position had Hollins not been so impressive.
“You can’t blame [him for any losses],” Pitino said. “I mean, Austin has carried us the whole year and he’ll continue to be a huge part of what we’re trying to do.”
While Hollins’ shots haven’t fallen lately, the senior has contributed in other ways, playing some of the best defense on the team. Still, Pitino said, he needs his captain back in full swing, being a difference-maker on both ends of the court rather than just filling the role of defensive specialist.
The Gophers can’t survive without him.
“We need him to score the basketball,” Pitino said. “He’s a good enough player all around to impact the game offensively as well as defensively. He’s certainly a good defensive player, but we need him to be a major factor offensively.”