Mo Walker has a different kind of battle this year.
Last offseason, the Minnesota center was one of two players who stayed on campus all summer, eschewing the chance to go home for extra time on the treadmill.
He changed his diet -- avoiding sauces and fried food and eating after 8 p.m. And he changed his lifestyle. He would walk over to the recreation center late at night after workouts and summer classes and tutoring were over. He started taking long walks with his girlfriend. Strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown, meanwhile, banned him from going on any dates that involved food.
"I bring it up twice a week now," Brown said. "Just laughing with him about the stuff he put himself through to get to this point."
Yes, the major hurdles have been crossed. Sixty pounds lighter and infinitely more mobile, Walker became a relevant -- even dominant -- piece of the rotation again for the first time since his freshman season. But due to the constant conditioning of last summer, the Ontario native didn't have much time to work on getting stronger, and tougher in the paint.
Now he does.
The Gophers hope in the next three months Walker will be able to find the consistency he lacked a year ago. The center averaged 7.8 points and 4.5 rebounds last year, including 9.8 points and 5.3 rebounds in his final 19 games, but was prone to foul trouble and at times lost his aggressiveness.
"There's no reason he shouldn't be one of the best big men in the league if not a first-team All Big Ten guy next year," assistant Dan McHale said. "But it's up to him. He's too nice of a guy. He's too nice off the court. He needs to show that mean streak, and he knows it."
Walker had the ball knocked out of his hands in pivotal moments on several occasions; other times, he simply didn't seem tough enough to compete against the Big Ten's brawny frontcourts.
In the weight room, he's working on building muscle -- even though he's not putting on a ton of weight, Brown said his strength levels are going up weekly. On the floor, the skilled post man is focusing on his defense, while adding an outside shot.
Whether he or fellow senior center Elliott Eliason will start is still very much up in the air. The two bring very different skill sets to the table. But even if Walker doesn't get the nod right away, his ceiling has grown even higher this season, the team believes.
"He showed flashes last year of a guy that could be one of the more dominant big guys in the league," McHale said. "It's his senior year, and he's got the chance to be really good."