MINNEAPOLIS — Andre Hollins saw Mo Walker this spring before leaving for Italy on a study abroad program, and Minnesota's standout point guard noticed a change in his big teammate's physique. Walker had lost about 15 pounds.
One month later, upon Hollins' return to campus in mid-June, the junior-to-be could hardly believe his eyes. The 6-foot-10 Walker has shed about 45 pounds.
"I said, 'What have you been doing?'" Hollins said, smiling wide. "That's just a testament to the hard work he's been doing."
The incredible shrinking Walker is also a clear sign of the influence of new coach Richard Pitino.
The Gophers don't start the season for four more months, but the 30-year-old son of the Hall of Fame coach has not held back in trying to mold the program to his preference and style. Pitino's fast-paced offense makes lumbering big men all but obsolete, so Walker knew he had to get in shape or be stuck at the end of the bench.
"It was more of a wakeup call to me. I knew I was overweight and stuff, but I kind of just lived with it and played with it comfortably," the junior from Toronto said. "But ever since I've been changing my body, it's been a big benefit to me."
Said Pitino before a practice this week: "I don't think Mo Walker could have played in any system at that weight. I don't think matters: my system or somebody else's."
Walker said he's at 265 pounds and wants to drop 15 more. Pitino said he's more focused on Walker's body-fat percentage, encouraging him to turn as much flab into muscle as he can.
"I feel a lot better going up and down the court," Walker said. "My wind is a little bit better. I'm definitely a little better. I feel like that just affects my overall game, rebounding and just overall defense, all the things that coach really stresses on."
Walker tore the posterior cruciate ligament and meniscus cartilage in his right knee just 12 games into his freshman year and missed the rest of that season. He took a redshirt the next year while trying, unsuccessfully, to recover from the injury and return to playing shape. Last season, coach Tubby Smith and his staff saw potential for Walker with some initial weight loss, but his conditioning still lagged and he averaged only 6.6 minutes per game.
With fellow junior Elliott Eliason the only other returning post player with any experience, there's plenty of room for Walker to grow into a role and thrive. Cutting out carbohydrates, particularly the sugars in soda and juice, was the biggest step for Walker.
The key, of course, is maintaining the discipline all season to stick with it.
"The first few weeks people were telling me I looked pretty good, and I didn't really see it, but I think maybe like the fourth or fifth week I started seeing the results and, yeah, I started looking at myself a little more in the mirror," Walker said with a sly smile.
Freshman Charles Buggs, who redshirted last season, will also be in the mix for playing time in the post. Joey King, a 6-foot-9 transfer from Drake, has the potential to be a starter at forward if the NCAA grants him a transfer waiver to play right away. But what's certain is that Walker and Eliason will be significant players, even in a fast-breaking, up-tempo system with emphasis on the 3-pointer. This is the Big Ten, so the big men by the basket will always matter.
With Pitino, these Gophers can expect to know where they stand.
"That's kind of the way I learned under my father, under Billy Donovan," Pitino said. "We're not going to play a whole lot of games. We're going to keep it pretty simple and just tell them how we feel. And sometimes I'll be all right, and a lot of times I'll be wrong, and that's just the way it is."