A month ago, who would have ever predicted that the Gophers frontcourt would be a bright spot through the start of the Big Ten schedule.
But through three games, that fact has been hard to deny.
Understandably, the frontcourt has been viewed as not only a questionmark, but a notable weakness since the beginning of the season on a team in which guards run the show. The crew still has a ways to go with the power forward position, which is basically scrapped together between Joey King, Oto Osenieks and Austin Hollins -- none ideal for the job -- but at the critical center spot, Minnesota has actually thrived.
In the last three games, Elliott Eliason has scored 29 points, blocked 12 shots and added 29 rebounds, while holding Jordan Morgan to three points and two rebounds in the opener and A.J. Hammons to seven points and a single rebound in the Gophers second game against Purdue.
"It makes you feel really good, it makes you feel really confident going on," Eliason said. "We've played some pretty good big men. Purdue had some good size obviously and Michigan and Horford played really well in that game too. We've got even bigger tests in these next few games, so confidence helps you just play hard."
Last night at Penn State, Ross Travis had a terrific performance, exploding for 18 points and 13 rebounds, but the Nittany Lions didn't get much production from the center spot. Eliason (11 points, 12 rebounds) dominated inside early on to play a huge role in giving the Gophers their initial early lead. And when the Nebraska native rested midway through the second, backup Mo Walker came in and picked up where Eliason left off, effectively scoring at the basket and keeping the early momentum. When the Gophers fell apart, it was no coincidence that they were also failing to continue to pound the ball inside to the big men.
"We just thought that we could control the block area inside," Eliason said. "We knew we could rebound well, and we thought we could score well, me and Mo both attacked pretty well there in the first half."
It was hard to fathom this scenario at the start of the non-conference, when neither player had really claimed the center role, and both were lacking meaningful experience. Despite the power forward concerns, the Gophers have actually rebounded pretty well through three games, averaging 35.6 boards a game in the last three. Ironically, it's been the guards (who have certainly contributed to rebounding) who have struggled offensively early on, with DeAndre Mathieu going through the transition period of becoming a Big Ten player, Austin Hollins going off for 18 points and nine rebounds against Purdue, but practically disappearing against Michigan at at Penn State and Andre Hollins unable to find the same consistent dominance Minnesota got accustomed to a year ago.
Can the Gophers' frontcourt continue the strong stretch against Michigan State? Eliason and Walker have one of the bigger tests of the season, with preseason All-American Adreian Payne -- who is averaging 16.2 points and 7.7 rebounds a game -- on deck.
"It feels like you've got a mountain to climb," Eliason said. "He really is a great player and he does so many things from all over the place, he's not just a low-post guy, he's crashing the boards, he's shooting the three, he's a do-it-all guy for him ... We watched him play against Ohio State [on Tuesday] and he made some big-time plays. He's doing that and he's a little banged up, even. That's a tough assignment."