For all of Andre Hollins’ improvements – and there have been many, pretty much across the board – there are plenty of challenges for the guard ahead.

That was still plenty clear on Tuesday, when the sophomore point guard finished with a solid 11 points and six assists to one turnover, but struggled at times to contain or even keep up with North Dakota State’s Lawrence Alexander.

The dexterous 6-3 guard for the Bison finished with 19 points and six assists of his own, and --- perhaps summing up the showdown – had Hollins drawing in deep breaths on the sideline.

“He was a little winded,” said coach Tubby Smith of Hollins, who also celebrated his 20th birthday on Tuesday. “I was like ‘Did you eat too much birthday cake or something?’ But he was like ‘Coach, I’m just trying to catch my wind.’”

Smith has said all year that this group, Hollins included, is full of the best-conditioned athletes he’s had, and that fact has been evident in the team’s harassing defensive play and ability to get out in transition.

But against especially athletic point guards, there is still a learning curve for Hollins.

“A lot of it had to do with Alexander -- Lawrence is a pretty good athlete,” Smith said. “And [Hollins] has had trouble guarding a quick athlete, point guards off the dribble. I was pretty impressed with Lawrence. He had some pretty good moves and he was pretty effective against us.”

Learning to avoid biting on fakes and stopping the crossover against an athletic guard is simply a process – especially for a young guard that isn’t a true point. But with the cache of talented floor generals ahead, it’s an area Hollins needs to work on, or be exposed. After Lafayette on the 22nd, the Gophers head into Big Ten play, with Michigan State’s Keith Appling as Hollins’ first defensive assignment during the conference schedule.

Appling might be the quickest, most athletic point guard in the league. His ability to dangerously change speeds on a dime had opponents shaking their heads last year, and now the junior is just another year older and more experienced.

After Northwestern a game later, Hollins will have improved sophomore Tracy Abrams at Illinois and stunning freshman Yogi Ferrell at Indiana – both young but quick and highly developed ball handlers.

Hollins has done a lot of things right this season, and he’s an eager and willing learner, so I have no doubt his shortcomings are on his mind. If he can improve in defending elite point guards, he will have added another layer to a game that’s already highly improved from a year ago.

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