Growing up, Austin Hollins was just like most little hoops dreamers shooting baskets outside, throwing up the big shot at the end of a make-believe game as an imaginary crowd went wild.

At Germantown High School in Tennessee, Hollins was just that player, averaging 18.9 points a game as one of the team leaders his senior year.

Back then, he didn't salivate about shutting down individual opponents with his defense. He didn't relish watching guards on the other team take a poor, contested shot. Hollins wasn't a bad defender, necessarily, but it certainly wasn't attached to his identity.

Oh, but things have changed.

Two and a half years into playing for Gophers coach Tubby Smith's system, Hollins has become the defensive leader on an aggressive, defensive-minded team. He is the player who gets the toughest assignments, the player who has wowed with his consistent focus and intensity on that end of the floor.

"When you're a little kid, you're not in the driveway trying to get the stop -- you're in the driveway trying to take that last-minute shot," Hollins said. "Everyone wants to shoot the ball, and I think defense doesn't get as much attention, but it's just as important."

Important, sure, but what is real answer for his impressive progression?

For Hollins, that part of his game has simply become fun.

The junior guard smiles almost guiltily when he talks about limiting his matchups, something you don't see all that often when talking about defense. Instead of the wild cheers, the look on struggling opponents' faces, the forced shots, the frustrated mistakes -- all of that is his reward for his stingy performances.

"I learned that guarding and playing defense is not as bad as everyone makes it seem sometimes," he said. "I take a lot of pride in that and it's kind of fun, locking down another team's top guy ... you may not hold them to zero points, but just making it tough for them -- it's fun."

Understandably, defense is one of the areas where young players making the transition from high school to college struggle the most. Most players recruited to play at a major Division I program were talented enough offensively to blow past other high school players and rely on raw athleticism to dominate.

But on Smith's teams, it's improve defensively or lose your spot. Because of that, Hollins was almost "forced" to improve, he said, as he strove to make an impact.

Defense isn't like shooting or dribbling -- you can't really practice it during your off time in the gym. So for Hollins, every moment on the court mattered.

"He's a smart enough guy to know, 'This is what coach wants, this is how I can best help the team,' " said Smith, who has called Hollins his most reliable player. "That's what I appreciate about him -- he'll do whatever it takes."

Now, playing the best defense of his career, Hollins has become a model player for a team that collectively improved its defensive prowess. As a result, his scoring, along with the rest of the starting lineup's, has become consistent as well.

As one of the team's best shooters, Hollins is still the guy to take the big shot, but now he has also done the work behind the scenes.

"This team thrives off defense," Hollins said. "It's just something that took a little time and experience."