Elliott Eliason smiled.
Sitting at his locker Friday, the sweat from Minnesota’s season-opener victory against Lehigh showered off, he couldn’t help it.
Perhaps there is no Gopher who is harder on himself than the 6-11 center, who clearly puts so much emotion into every basketball game. Want to hear it like it is? Go to Eliason. Looking for a player to acknowledge the shortcomings? Eliason again.
But on Friday, there was nothing for the big man to do except try to buffer the compliments coming his way. With the Gophers in a sticky situation after announcing before the game that center Mo Walker would be suspended for six contests, Eliason broke out for 11 points and 17 rebounds — the first double-double of his career — with the latter a career high.
“You just come here and do what you can,” Eliason said. “Sometimes things go your way.”
The Gophers are hoping the trend of a smiling Eliason continues. With Walker out for Tuesday’s game against Montana — and four more after that — Eliason’s role becomes more critical than ever. Anchoring a frontcourt that already was hurting from a lack of bodies, the Nebraska native is now the sole true post player available.
“He’s carrying us right now,” coach Richard Pitino said. “When you don’t have a sub, a pure backup center, that’s going to be difficult for him because he’s going to have to play major minutes.”
It’s hardly realistic that Eliason will continue to produce as he did Friday, but there’s pressure on him to take his game to a new level. The redshirt junior has lost 20 pounds and is much better shape than a year ago, but he only played 28 minutes against Lehigh before he fouled out. Against better teams, that could be a problem.
The biggest challenge might be one that’s long been a concern for the passionate big man — the ability for him to keep his head in the game. Eliason’s emotional demeanor can be beneficial at times, because he uses it for motivation. But Pitino and the rest of the staff are more concerned about the times it takes over, as it did a few times Friday when he got upset with himself or over a particular call.
“He had that one foul where he missed a shot and then he fouled,” Pitino said. “And we talked a lot about that. [He’s] too important to this team. A silly little foul like that crushes us.”
Said Eliason: “I think that sometimes, even though it comes from a place of passion, it gets misconstrued as something else. That’s kind of one of coach Pitino’s pet peeves.”
It’s only going to get tougher, now that he’s had a breakout game.
“Everybody on the scouting report is now going to say ‘He’s got 17 rebounds — block him out,’ ” Pitino said. “So now he’s going to have a little bit of a reputation … They’re going to understand that we don’t have a lot of frontcourt depth, so they’re going to go at him.”