At the start of the 2013-14 season, new Gophers coach Richard Pitino took a good, hard look at his frontcourt and tried to picture where his rebounding would come from after Elliott Eliason, his starting center.
His gaze drifted past Mo Walker, his backup rim protector, and Joey King and Oto Osenieks, his only power forwards, and landed squarely on guard Austin Hollins.
“You,” the young coach said to his 6-4 senior, “are going to have to get us seven or eight rebounds a game.”
At the time, the request might have seemed unreasonable for outsiders, who watched Hollins, a reliable but hardly dynamic mainstay, average 3.2 boards a game last season.
What a change a new year, a new coach and a new system — seemingly tailored for Hollins’ skills and strengths — has made.
In the two months leading up to the Big Ten opener — the Gophers play Michigan at home on Thursday night — Hollins has hit a new stride. The guard is averaging 13.5 points and 7.1 rebounds while playing the team’s best all-around defense (he has 19 steals, second only to DeAndre Mathieu’s 25) and igniting the team with his dynamic highlight-reel dunks and alley-oops — a phenomenon that has emerged with a force this season.
Off the court, the senior has stayed humble and understated as ever, never the type to toot his own horn, ever working to get better.
Hollins, son of Lionel Hollins, the former head coach of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, is the player who perhaps most embodies the philosophy that Pitino is trying to instill at Minnesota. The guard is so easy to coach, it’s “almost disturbing,” Pitino has said, noting that Hollins almost reads his mind.
In drills, he’s the first player to saturate his jersey, and it usually happens on the first drill, Pitino said. At the end of practice, Hollins is the one coaxing teammates to keep up the intensity.
“If he makes a mistake, you just turn and as you’re about to [correct him], he’ll look at you like ‘I know.’ He’s that type of guy,” Pitino said. “Austin has been the most consistent guy, every drill, every film session, every practice, he is the most professional kid with everything that he does that I’ve ever been around. And now he’s reaping the rewards of it.”
Pitino calls Hollins “the consummate pro,” and the coach said the Gophers would be a “much better team” if every player had Hollins’ work ethic.
“We might not be the most talented team on the court, but we’re going to be the team that’s working the hardest,” Hollins said. “We want to be the team out there being the most aggressive and just controlling the tempo.”
The coming-out party
On Dec. 10, Austin Hollins walked into Williams Arena anticipating a night that was set up to be junior Andre Hollins’ birthday celebration.
The pair of Memphis natives — who have become so close over the past two years that they’ve stopped correcting misguided observers who assume they are brothers — were going through pregame warmups when the elder Hollins pulled his teammate aside with a joking plea.
Andre, a day away from his 21st birthday, was averaging 16.6 points at the time and was just 13 away from 1,000 career points. Austin, not quite the same consistent threat for a huge offensive game, was 17 away.
“Dre, you’ve got to wait on me,” he said, according to Andre. “You’ve got to wait on me if I don’t get it.”
Instead, the night became Austin’s coming-out party. He finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds in a performance that made him Big Ten player of the week for the first time, and highlighted all of the ways his game had dramatically improved since a year ago.
That night, the “Hollinsanity” banners in the stands seemed meant just for him, even if the term began only after Andre showed up. The latter has wowed for more than two years with his ability to explode for big games, including a 41-point performance last season against a ranked Memphis team in the Bahamas. Now, with teams game-planning for Andre more than ever, Austin has filled all the holes, taking advantage of opponents who foolishly might not be expecting as much from him.
“I don’t think Austin Hollins gets enough respect,” Pitino said. “When you talk about the face of the program, you say it’s Andre Hollins. Well, I think we’ve got two faces, and it’s Andre and Austin Hollins.”
Memphis’ other ‘A. Hollins’
Clear recollections of an incredibly athletic human highlight reel, a high school rival that couldn’t be stopped, come back to Andre Hollins in an instant.
He remembers his White Station Spartans playing Germantown High School, and a lanky guard with big hands and a capacious wingspan as the target of a sequence run just for him.
“They always ran this lob play for him,” Andre said. “And they always got it. One time, at home, my junior year, his senior year, he got that lob play and then coming down, they got him in transition and one of his teammates threw it up off the backboard and he caught it and dunked it.”
It was the other “A. Hollins,” the other No. 20 walking around Memphis suburbs.
“I always knew he had it in him — getting it out, throwing it up to him, he’s a leaper,” Andre Hollins said. “I always knew he had bounce, but he’s surprising everybody, he’s getting us hyped in the game.”
These days, Hollins is catching lobs from Maverick Ahanmisi and DeAndre Mathieu, seeming to find a special chemistry with the latter, who takes a great deal of pride in his assists.
“I’m getting really good at the lob, and Austin is making it easy — he’s going to catch it every time,” Mathieu said.
Against New Orleans on Dec. 7, Mathieu tossed one to Austin, who sprang up, catching the offering with one hand and seeming to cock it back slightly before slamming it through the hoop. Later that night, it ended up at No. 5 on “SportsCenter’s” top 10 plays.
It was his third alley-oop in three games.
“Austin can jump out of the gym,” said Mathieu. “He’s sneaky, too. You wouldn’t expect it and then he just dunks all on you.”
But ask Hollins about his thunderous feats, and the most exaggerated response you’ll get is a small smile and a quiet statement about wanting to bring energy for the team. A couple of weeks ago, he came as close as he gets to a brag as he shrugged off the new manifestations of his game this season.
“I think a lot of people don’t know how athletic I am at times,” he said. “It’s not always necessary for me to go up and dunk if I can get a layup — just getting the two points is more important to me.”
Hollins has found a way to reach Pitino’s high expectations of him, and is threatening to do more. But in the locker room, he remains unchanged from previous seasons.
That, too, is exactly what Pitino wants to see.
“Gamedays you certainly need to have that confidence, that swagger,” Pitino said. “But when it’s time to go to work, whether it’s in the weight room, individual instruction, practice, that’s where we need to be humble and we need to get better. He’s that type of guy.”