A summer ago, Elliott Eliason was at a crossroads.
The University of Minnesota center, coming off a season in which he played just 13.7 minutes a game, was unsure of where he fit in new coach Richard Pitino's system. Eliason was unproven and overweight. Outside of the program, conversations about the Gophers dual centers -- he and Mo Walker -- focused on just how much of a liability that position could be.
Twelve months later, things are different. Eliason, who dropped 20 pounds before the season started, had a standout defensive year, compiling 244 rebounds and 72 blocks while platooning with Walker to create a formidable twosome at the five-spot. Heading into the fall, the pair are established seniors, each with very different but equally promising skill sets that could make the competition for starter a fierce one. The summer, for both players, was about tweaking and getting stronger.
"It's a lot different because obviously, we kind of know what to expect from the coaching staff this year," he said. "We have a clear vision."
I caught up with Eliason just before he headed back to his hometown, Chadron, Neb., to chat about how things have gone since the offseason began.
What are you focusing on the most this summer? You lost all that weight last year. Are you happy with where you are?
Definitely. I'm at a place that [the coaching staff is] comfortable with me at so now it's more about body fat percentage, trying to focus in on strength goals. We're doing a lot more skill work this summer. On the court, I'm doing a lot of shooting jump shots and free throws, and working on some back-to-the-basket moves. I've been working with our [coaches] to just kind of be strong with the ball so I'll be able to make a better back-to-the-basket move. I really want to improve my free-throw percentages [which was 56.5 percet last season].
In terms of changing your body fat, what are you tweaking about what you were already doing?
It was a lot of diet stuff. Obviously, I'm doing a lot of running. But also, it's just cutting things out that seemed pretty normal but you don't really need them anymore. I don't eat as many carbohydrates anymore. I'm never going to be a guy that's four percent body fat or really low, but it's definitely gotten below what it was before -- I think they're happy with what I've done this summer.
Are you doing a lot more lifting this summer as well?
Yes. I don't have to worry about losing weight, I'm just worrying about getting stronger. So because of that, I think I've seen a lot more improvement than I did the year before. [Strength and Conditioning] coach [Shaun] Brown is good at tweaking things when he sees something's not working for you. Different things don't work the same for different guys. A lot of the guys have gotten a lot stronger over a pretty short period of time. I think it will be good to have those couple other months when we get back to kind of finish out that program and then get started with practices.
Has coach Richard Pitino had a different approach with you guys this year in summer workouts now that he spent so much time implementing his new system last year?
Last year he was always at everything. I think it's because he wanted to show he was the new coach, he wanted to be involved with everything. But we didn't really get to know the styles or even the personalities of all our assistant coaches. I think when we turned in our offseason reviews that showed. We talked about it at the end of the season. He really wants us to build those relationships because he knows how important they are that we trust and have a good relationship with all the coaching staff, not just him. So he gave, in individual instruction, those guys a lot of responsibility and they basically ran the show this summer. With him, when we all got together he would talk to us or he'd be hanging out in the weight room but he wouldn't be really leading the session. I think he wanted to take a step back and kind of observe the workouts instead of being in the middle of them.
Have you thought about your goals for yourself or for the team next year yet?
We'll get together when we come back [from back] and talk and set those goals in stone then. And individually, we'll get together with the coaches and come up with goals for ourselves. I have some ideas but I need to make sure we're on the same page first.
What about in terms of your defensive rebounding potential. Have you thought about potentially leading the Big Ten in that category?
I know I was on track to last year, starting off the season so well. And the first half of Big Ten, defensive rebounding I was right there. I think I stayed top five the whole year. And blocked shots were up there too. It's kind of the goal. It's a lofty goal especially with so many talented bigs in the league ... that's kind of the thought process, to be there or right there.
Offensively, you were less consistent last year after getting off to a strong start. Did you ever feel like you were in a rut or was your mindset changing as you realized your value on the defensive end more?
At times I felt like I was in a rut. I just struggled to score at times. But the strategy was a little different, there weren't as many opportunities sometimes. Early season, there were a lot more minutes. Just different factors made it happen. Other times, it was just that's what they wanted me to do, play defense and go get a bunch of rebounds. That's what I do best. But obviously, I think it's going to take more of a scoring threat out of me to consistently stay on the floor. Mo came on really strong last year. He was a great scoring threat down low and it was huge for us.
Near the end of the season last year, Pitino talked a lot about toughness, both physically and mentally and sited the team's lack of it as the base for a few key losses, including the second-round game vs. Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament. How much have you guys as players thought about that? We've been trying to work on that through competition more than anything. We'll have competitions against each other in the weight room or playing around in the gym. It's always for something. Just to ensure that open gym doesn't become not very competitive.The thought is to be really competitive all the time. Always scrapping kind of helps to get into a routine that you're always going to be that way. It's tough. It's something you've got to do all the time.
Have the pickup games gotten pretty intense?
Things have been getting pretty heated... it's good to get us back in the flow.
Just a lot of bumps and bruises. I don't think we've had a broken nose yet, thank goodness. But there was definitely a lot of competition and bad feelings sometimes, but it's probably for the best.
What does the winning team get?
The loser has to run or do more reps in the weight room; the captains will [hold the players accountable] there. If not that, it's just for pride, because you don't want to hear DeAndre [Mathieu] or someone giving you smack for the next couple of days.
This is your last year here, your fifth since you redshirted. Your collegiate career is almost over! Have you started to get sentimental at all yet?
I haven't yet but I'm sure once the fall rolls around and you start gearing up and everyone starts talking about the season, it will probably become that way. Right now, summer, it still seems far enough away, it's not real yet. But it's coming and it's coming fast.
What will you do with your free time back in Chadron on your break?
Well, I'll definitely take a little relaxation time. And then I'll beat up on my brother [Spencer, who will be playing at North Dakota State in the fall] in the gym, try to make him better, and try to get better myself.