Attributing a player's growth to "confidence" is so cliché-ridden and overused that it's easily dismissed.

In the case of Gophers point guard Andre Hollins, however, confidence might be the only explanation for his quantum leap from wobbly freshman to NIT breakout to legitimate leader as a sophomore.

Besides, Hollins' self-belief is only part of the picture. There's also the confidence of notoriously hands-on coach Tubby Smith, who has handed his young guard a long leash heading into the Gophers' second Big Ten game, against Northwestern on Sunday.

Given the freedom, the Memphis native has excelled, leading the team with a new efficiency and precision.

"He knows the plays extremely well, and I have the confidence that he'll call the game," Smith said. "Because he's doing a good job."

That conviction from Smith started last season, when Hollins ramped up his play in the postseason -- and Smith gave him more and more autonomy.

Then, in the third round of the NIT at Middle Tennessee State, Hollins was in the huddle and called for the "fist" -- a play designed to get the point guard an early layup and then a jump-shot look before any other options are looked at -- just as Smith was calling for something else. But Smith quickly shook off his own call, raising a fist in support of Hollins' choice: a self-veto made even more impressive by the fact that the guard was calling the play for himself.

"He's starting to trust me," the 6-1, 200-pound Hollins said. "I'm starting to understand the game more, and understand what he wants to run and understanding what needs to be called at the time, the way the defense is playing us."

This season, that trend has continued, with Hollins talking regularly with Smith about the way the coach wants the offense to run in certain situations. With the guard actively working on mirroring Smith's approach, the coach is more willing to let him operate on his own terms in games.

"The point guard is the coach on the floor, basically," Hollins said. "I talk to him a lot, try to understand what he wants and what we need to do as a team. So I'm just trying to relate that over to the game, make the right calls."

As a result, Hollins sees the court more clearly, makes better and quicker decisions and anticipates defenses in a way he couldn't early last season, when Smith directed the guard more specifically and constantly. In last season's league opener, Hollins played only 16 minutes. This season, the sophomore played 31 and helped hold Michigan State guard Keith Appling, scoreless over the last 10:38 while finishing with 22 points and six assists.

"He's learned fast," teammate Rodney Williams said. "He's been a real good leader for us, and that's what we're going to need in order to be successful in this league."

Hollins shouldn't have quite as imposing a challenge against Northwestern's Alex Marcotullio, but in the Big Ten, no assignment is easy. No matter: Better competition gets Hollins' blood flowing, he has said. The confidence that now courses through him as naturally as the jitters did a year ago, the trust bestowed by Smith that helped lead to it, none of that has come by accident.

"I still have a lot of work to do," Hollins said, noting his three unforced turnovers in the Michigan State game. "But it's something to work on. It's always a day to get better, so I'm trying to get better every day."