Ann Arbor, Mich. – The ball left Andre Hollins’ hand, rose cooperatively toward the basket and spun halfway down. Then it lipped out.
The Gophers men’s basketball senior guard couldn’t help but pause a moment and stare, muttering to himself.
Such is life lately for the Gophers’ usual go-to scorer, off to the worst conference start of his four-year career. At that point, in the first half of their 74-72 overtime loss to Ohio State on Tuesday, Hollins’ missed layup made him 0-for-6 from the field. Meanwhile, his defensive assignment, Buckeyes freshman D’Angelo Russell, was on his way to 25 first-half points to help put the Gophers into a 41-29 hole at the break.
For those watching, it felt like more of the same.
In the Gophers’ three Big Ten games, all losses, Hollins has hit only 18.8 percent of his shots while averaging 7.0 points. He made only three baskets in the first two games combined — missing eight when the Gophers blew a big lead at Purdue, and eight more at Maryland when they needed another scorer to step up alongside Mo Walker. Against Ohio State, that uncooperative layup and nine other shots missed the mark.
Leading up to Saturday’s game at Michigan, the Gophers have continued to downplay the slump.
“We know he’s a great scorer,” forward Joey King said. “He knows he can shoot the ball. A couple haven’t gone his way recently, but he’s not going to get down on that. He’s going to keep shooting, and his teammates, including myself, are all very confident of what he’s capable of.”
Throughout Hollins’ hot-and-cold nonconference season, Richard Pitino pointed to his defensive ability, noting it was just as valuable as his scoring. But Tuesday, Hollins’ struggles vs. Russell prompted the coach to alternate Nate Mason and DeAndre Mathieu in guarding the freshman in the second half — when Russell was held to two points. It also prompted that night’s television analyst to rip into Hollins’ play.
“How do you, Andre Hollins, get beat down the floor?” ESPN’s Dan Dakich ranted after Russell beat Hollins on a fast break. “How does Russell play harder than you? You got a freshman in your own house, talkin’ to you, knockin’ it in, playing lights out, and you let him beat you down the floor.”
Hollins drilled three second-half three-pointers and finished with 12 points, his first game in double-digits since Dec. 19 vs. Seattle. Afterward, the bubbly personality was wearing a rare straight face. The 6-1 Memphis native deadpanned when asked if it felt good to see a couple of balls go in.
“Yeah, I mean, yeah, it felt good to hit shots,” he said. It was Hollins’ performance on the other end that seemed to have lingered instead.
“It was just ridiculous,” he said of Russell’s first-half explosion. “Part of it was my fault, I wasn’t fighting over screens, I was letting him get some open shots, I let him hit an open three just by pressuring and letting him get to his left. A lot of that was my fault.”
Hollins joined the Gophers in 2011 and quickly earned a spot in the starting lineup. By the end of the year, he had scored in double digits in eight of the final nine games — including five with 18 or more — sending expectations soaring. His sophomore year, he built on those hopes, capping a solid season with 53 points in two NCAA tournament games.
Last season, he scored 13.6 points per game, down a point from 2012-13, after a midseason severe ankle sprain hobbled him for the rest of the season. This year, his average (12.4, third best on the team) is even lower, despite the highest shooting percentage of his career (42.3 percent).
But the Gophers have more scorers now than a year ago. Walker, the senior center, has been the most reliable (12.9 ppg), but DeAndre Mathieu, Carlos Morris and Nate Mason can all put it in the hole as well. Considering Hollins’ career path, his lack of speed in Pitino’s speed-oriented system and his inability to drive past Big Ten guards, are the expectations simply too high?
“I can’t set the expectations of the public,” Pitino said. “He’s an important piece. DeAndre is an important piece. Mo is. They’re all important pieces.
“I don’t think the guy is underperforming. I know people think he’s underperforming. Since I’ve been here, I think he competes, I think he’s playing hard, I think he does a lot of little things that may not show up on a boxscore. But I personally don’t think he’s underperforming. I think he’s giving us a lot.”
But this seems clear: The Gophers need him to be better if they want to take the next step — or even just get that first Big Ten victory Saturday.
Hollins knows that, too.
“I’ve just got to keep pushing forward,” he said. “I know what it takes to be successful. I know how to score. I know what it takes to lock somebody up. So it’s just adjusting, just focusing.”