If one collected scouting reports on the Gophers men’s basketball team in November, there would have been an obvious theme.
Andre Hollins. Austin Hollins. Stop those two, and you can shut down the Gophers.
The reports have changed.
Six games into the Big Ten schedule, Minnesota has proved to be a much more balanced team that anyone originally thought — so much so that it’s debatable whether leading scorer Andre Hollins and senior Austin Hollins are the most indispensable players on this team right now.
That distinction might just belong to junior center Elliott Eliason and junior point guard DeAndre Mathieu — two players whose surprisingly strong performances have been critical to Minnesota’s early success as the Gophers head into a critical home-court matchup against Wisconsin on Wednesday.
“Everyone thought it was going to be the Austin and Andre show this whole year,” Eliason said. “So I think that’s probably surprised a lot of people. I think we had confidence in ourselves, but probably everyone else didn’t think that as much.”
The Gophers will need all that confidence Wednesday, when they face their fourth top-15 team in as many games — a stretch of highly ranked teams that has occurred only one other time in program history. With No. 9 Wisconsin coming off a two-game losing streak, the Badgers present an opportunity for the Gophers to solidify the notion that they can compete with the league’s elite teams. Minnesota appeared to have gained that stature with a victory last week over Ohio State, but that win lost some of its luster when the Buckeyes lost their fourth consecutive game Monday night at Nebraska.
Are the Gophers for real? That might depend on whether Eliason and Mathieu can keep up their strong early showings. The good news for the Gophers is that their emergence has made Minnesota a much more balanced team. Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins have had solid seasons, and senior guard Malik Smith has filled the role of instant offense and crunch-time scorer.
“It’s dangerous,” Andre Hollins said. “Any night — who do they focus on? Teams might focus on me, but we have Malik, Austin, [Little] Dre, Elliott, Oto [Osenieks], Mo [Walker]. We have multiple threats.”
But without the Gophers’ big man in the middle and little guy at the top, the Gophers aren’t the same. Take away those two, and the team’s identity changes.
Here’s a look at the reasons why:
Eliason: A center of attention
• Defensive presence: The center has proved to be critical as the last line of defense in the Gophers’ press, stopping drivers who slip past Minnesota’s guards in the open court with his elite shot-blocking skills. Eliason’s who ranks 19th nationally in shot-blocking percentage, according to kenpom.com, has collected at least four blocks in three of six Big Ten games. His 25.6 defensive rebounding percentage ranks 32nd in the nation and his ability to take charges — even with the new rules making it tougher — has been notable.
With Wisconsin not being particularly strong on the boards, Eliason has the opportunity to claim the advantage there. The Nebraska native will go against 7-footer Frank Kaminsky, who is making 55.8 percent of his shots from the field — but Eliason has shut down big men all season, most notably, Purdue’s A.J. Hammons, who had only seven points and one rebound against Minnesota.
• Balance from the inside: At the start of the season, Minnesota’s frontcourt was thought to be a black hole, with all the talent residing in the guards. Eliason is starting to change that perception. Minnesota still hasn’t become a dominant team offensively in the paint — Eliason is not a true post-up threat — but he’s managed to finish with double-digit points in three of six conference games by scoring off the pick-and-roll, offensive rebounds and with an improving hook shot.
When he does those things, the Gophers become infinitely tougher to guard.
“It’s nice to have a bunch of guys — you need those other options because teams [in the conference] are so good defensively and they game plan so well, that if there are just two options, they can game plan to stop that,” Eliason said.
Mathieu: The point man
• Fit for the system: Coming into the season, the Gophers’ roster lacked a pure point guard. Mathieu has filled that role, and his quickness and persistence on defense has allowed coach Richard Pitino to effectively implement his style. Mathieu has made himself into a better passer as the season has gone on, driving into the lane and kicking out to Austin and Andre Hollins, who should be able to be more aggressive looking for his shot without his old floor general duties.
Mathieu was a huge part of the Gophers’ victory against Ohio State, holding Aaron Craft to seven points and helping to force five turnovers. He should have more opportunity Wednesday against Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson, who has had 14 turnovers in the past four games.
• Spreading the defense: With Mathieu and the Hollinses on the floor, the Gophers’ backcourt has at least three legitimate threats to go off for big points — four if Smith joins them. Despite his 5-9 size, Mathieu is capable of driving for layups and scoring over much taller players — and now his jump shot seems to be improving as well.
“He’s been really important,” Austin Hollins said. “As a point guard, he’s one the leaders of this team and he really makes things go. As quick as he is, he can really get up and down the floor and with the style that we like to play, fast-paced, it definitely plays to our advantage the way he can attack the rim. He gets to the basket better than anyone I know.”