One of the interesting things about a player improving as quickly and dramatically as Elliott Eliason has, is that he still kind of toes both worlds.
One moment, the Gophers center is blocking bigtime shots, taking control of the team vocally on defense and going up against the likes of A.J. Hammons and Jordan Morgan -- and vastly outplaying his counterparts.
The next, he's just the small-town kid from Nebraska, almost unable to grasp -- or believe -- his own success.
After proving to be a major factor in dismantling Ohio State's elite defense, Eliason still seemed taken off-guard by coach Richard Pitino's decision on Wednesday to make him the team's third captain.
"I was a little bit surprised, to be quite honest, but I was all smiles," he said. "I was so happy. I’ve heard so many congratulations from everyone. It’s been great ... It actually meant a lot to me, to have Coach Pitino come in and give me that honor. I didn’t expect it but it’s gratifying. You’re working every day. It’s great. I tried to have the mentality to try to lead a little bit more than normal."
In reality, he has led the team so much more than anyone, myself included, ever expected.
Coming into the season, the Gophers frontcourt was pegged as the weak spot; the area that would hold back the guard-oriented Minnesota. Even as Eliason has found success again and again throughout the season, we've still kept saying it -- sure that the trend won't continue in such a meaningful way.
The actual storyline couldn't be playing out more differently.
Eliason has established himself as a major part of this Gophers team, a game-changer in most of the big wins they've had. In the Big Ten, he's reached a new level, proving that continuing such impressive consistency and dominance after the big jump in competition level is entirely within his means.
Thursday, Eliason added another element, providing a legitimate scoring option in the paint that gave the Gophers a multi-dimensional look on offense, and provided a glimpse of just how good Minnesota could actually be if it is able to do that on a consistent basis. Taking that pressure off the perimeter, and forcing opposing defenses to stay honest changes the entire dynamic of the team.
"Whenever we needed a bucket, he came through clutch with some big finishes, big rebounds," DeAndre Mathieu said. "He’s turned into a monster – he’s really good. I think he’s the best big in the Big Ten."
Even Mo Walker, in backing up the new leader, has been effective in spot minutes. Yesterday, Walker entered the game for the first time in the second half and almost immediately hit a pair of big layups to instigate an 8-0 run for Minnesota.
"It wasn’t just me," Eliason said. "Mo made some huge plays down there – finished a three-point play, made some big rebounds, got a big steal. So that’s got to make everybody think really positive about our interior play, how it’s developed through the season."
While the Gophers still have plenty of concerns at the power forward spot, the center position has become a gleaming strength -- something no one expected.
Gophers fans, you should be excited -- these are the stories that make sports great. Eliason has the potential to make Minnesota into a real competitor -- something he strongly hinted at with his play on Thursday -- and it seems he's only getting better every day.