Elliott Eliason stroked his meager beard with one hand, devilishly glancing at Mo Walker.
“I had to beat him,” Eliason said, nodding toward his teammate and fellow big man.
Apparently, that’s the running dynamic.
The two Gophers centers have developed a friendly but intense competitiveness this season in just about everything they do — from trying to get the better of each other in practice, to Eliason sprouting some facial hair to try to out-beard Walker, or so he jokes.
In the process, the duo is essentially executing a 1-on-1 clinic on improving each other’s shortcomings.
Eliason is better defensively, with rebounding and blocking shots, but he has more trouble on the offensive end. Walker has more post moves and is better in the Gophers’ pick-and-roll, but he lacks the same presence defensively and on the glass. Going at each other in practice only helps shore up the corresponding weaknesses for each, while the two are able to witness what works and what doesn’t in real time.
“It’s amazing what Elliott is really good at, Mo’s not as good at, but Elliott’s weaknesses are Mo’s strengths,” coach Richard Pitino said. “If you could just put Elliott and Mo together, they’d be a phenomenal player. What we’ve got to do now is they’ve got to push each other to get better.”
Perhaps the Gophers are starting to see the results. This season, each player has been asked to play a much greater role than a year ago, and more will be expected as the team gets deeper into the Big Ten schedule. Heading into Sunday’s game against Purdue and 7-footer A.J. Hammons, Eliason has gone from 2.2 points an 3.5 rebounds in 13.7 minutes a game to 5.8 points and 8.2 rebounds in 24.7 minutes this year. In three of the past four games, he has scored in double digits and has totaled 37 rebounds in that stretch. Walker has gone from relative irrelevance last year to contributing 5.4 points and 4.3 rebounds in 15.1 minutes a game.
Meanwhile, they have developed a kind of chemistry from fighting, in different ways, the same overwhelming perception: that the Gophers frontcourt is their Achilles’ heel.
“A lot of people don’t really consider us to be a force inside,” Walker said. “But I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people ... even though we might not be the most athletic, but we get up and down the floor a lot better as opposed to last year, we’re getting off the floor a lot better.”
At the “athletic” bit, Eliason failed to stifle a laugh, outwardly acknowledging his lack of athleticism.
Walker, while losing 60 pounds in the offseason — a necessity for getting him into playing shape — is still not very quick. Eliason makes post play look awkward at times because of his lanky frame, but he has found ways to be highly efficient anyway, blocking shots at the 39th-best rate in the country, according to college basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy.
In Thursday’s conference opener against Michigan, the frontcourt was not the Gophers’ weakness, with the backcourt underwhelming in a 63-60 loss. Eliason and Walker were actually pretty effective, with Eliason recording his fourth double-double of the year in 24 minutes — even showcasing a couple of offensive moves in the post for scores — and Walker filling in adequately for Eliason when he was out in the second half due to foul trouble.
With the Gophers struggling to keep up with the Wolverines down the stretch, Walker scored consecutive baskets (including a dunk!) to tie the score at 49-49 with 5:53 to play.
It was the kind of aggressive play the Gophers badly needed.
“You have to be — it’s the Big Ten,” Eliason said. “If you’re passive, they’re going to throw it back in my face and we’re going to get killed down low. There are a lot of really good players in there, and we’re going to see even more every night.”
Tall task ahead
The Wolverines were without All-America center Mitch McGary (back) on Thursday, and Glenn Robinson III injured his left ankle early in the second half. But the tests get tougher with Hammons, who had 14 points and six rebounds in a Purdue victory over the Gophers last March.
Pitino said he thinks the competition, both on game nights and in practice, will pay off. Trying to demonstrate this point to his big men, he wrote the name “Casey Prather” on the white board before practice a couple of weeks ago. Prather is a starting senior forward for No. 12 Florida, but in the second year Pitino was a Gators assistant under Billy Donovan, Prather barely played.
“He had a long way to go, but he went against Chandler Parsons [now with the Houston Rockets] every single day, and Chandler made him better,” Pitino said. “Not as quickly as people would like, but he’s very good four years down the road.”
Now that competitive fire is doing the same for the Gophers centers. A few weeks back, after a particularly strong individual instruction for Walker, Pitino warned Eliason that his teammate could steal his starting spot.
“Elliott came right back and had a phenomenal practice,” Pitino said. “So it just showed, those two guys are making each other better.”