As of yesterday, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino still wasn't sure if he would have center Elliott Eliason (ankle) available vs. SMU in tonight's NIT championship (6 p.m. tipoff; ESPN; 1500-a.m.).
But the health of one of his guards -- mentally and physically -- could prove just as important.
In a 67-64 overtime win against Florida State on Tuesday, Andre Hollins managed 13 points, four rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals. It was one of his strongest and most versatile performances in some time.
It's no secret that Hollins hasn't been the same since severely spraining his left ankle in a game against Wisconsin on Jan. 22. In four of the previous five games, the junior had failed to reach double digits. More concerning than that, though, is his hesitancy offensively, which has become a trend throughout the year. Often, we've seen a version of Hollins that is content to sit in the corner, dribble twice and throw up a perimeter shot. He rarely drives to the basket or works to get himself involved away from the ball.
Tuesday, we saw a spark of something different: the Andre Hollins everyone hoped he would grow into in his third year. He was more aggressive offensively, powering into the lane and getting to the line six times.
It was only the fourth time since the start of the Big Ten schedule that Hollins, Austin Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu all scored in double digits, and the combination made all the difference.
How much of Hollins' down-tick has been the result of lingering pain and tightness from his injury, we can't say. After coming down on a defender's foot in the opening seconds of the Wisconsin game, Hollins missed just two other games. He struggled upon his return, but has said for weeks that he's 100 percent physically. Wednesday he tempered that statement a little bit.
"With an ankle injury like mine, it takes time to get that explosiveness, get that movement, get that motion, get that jumping ability to get fouled and try to finish over bigger defenders," he said. "And I guess that's kind of progressed lately, so I used that to my advantage."
Asked where he was in that process, Hollins replied that he was "pretty good."
Thursday provided hints of that.
The motivation to build off the semifinal is there. Two years ago, a red hot Hollins averaged 19.5 points in the six games leading up to the NIT championship game, dating back to the start of the Big Ten tournament. But against Stanford in the title game, Hollins mustered just four points, adding five turnovers before fouling out. Minnesota lost by 24.
"It's sour when you struggle in any game, and especially the championship game," Hollins said. "You never want to lose like that."
He'll have a chance to make it right tonight.