Not long after the Gophers introduced Richard Pitino as their new men’s basketball coach, rumors began to circulate that an unnamed player intended to seek his scholarship release and transfer to another program.
My gut reaction was, “Wonder where Maurice Walker will end up?”
It didn’t require much deductive reasoning to determine that Big Mo appeared ill-fitted for Pitino’s breakneck brand of basketball. At 310 pounds, Walker looked out of shape manning the low post in Tubby Smith’s plodding offense. How in the world would he ever survive in Pitino’s run-and-gun system? That’s like asking a pontoon to keep pace with speed boats. A change in scenery seemed inevitable.
In a touch of irony, the player who transferred — Joe Coleman — might have been the team’s best athlete. As for Walker, he decided to stick it out and make some life changes.
“Once I heard Pitino, I was really excited,” he said.
And then they met for the first time. Pitino has made Walker’s weight a standard quip in his public speeches, and he didn’t mince words in offering a blunt critique of his 6-10 junior center.
“[He said] it’s going to take a lot of work to get into shape and that I’m a long ways from where I need to be,” Walker said.
He’s still not there yet, but Walker has lost nearly 40 pounds through diet and fitness training. Noticeably slimmer, he hopes to lose an additional 15 to 20 pounds and enter next season around 255.
As someone who showed up on campus as a freshman weighing 340 pounds, Walker believes his career will follow a different arc with these changes to his body.
“Looking back at it now, I should have done this a long time ago,” he said.
A coaching change provided the necessary push, but Walker’s new outlook likely stems from a recognition that he was wasting an opportunity. He was either injured or too overweight to be considered anything but an intriguing unknown his first three years, including a redshirt season. His size became nothing more than a tease because he lacked the quickness and stamina to maintain anything.
Walker ultimately should hold himself accountable because it’s his body and his career. But college athletes need guidance or an occasional kick in the pants, and Smith’s staff failed to push the right buttons to keep Walker’s weight under control.
“I felt comfortable within my body that I could perform well enough,” Walker said. “I thought I could be effective at that weight. I wasn’t really pushed as hard as I should have been.”
He is now. Walker admits being “extremely nervous” before his first individual workout with Pitino this spring. He figured it would be intense with a lot of running. He didn’t guess wrong.
“I was dead tired,” he said.
Once he recovered, he knew he really had only one option if he wanted to stay.
“I need to get in shape,” he told himself. “I’m not going to make it.”
Normally, Walker returns to his Toronto home for a few weeks every summer to visit family and recharge before school starts. He decided to stay on campus this summer to focus on his training.
He cut out carbohydrates and unhealthy snacks and replaced fast food with salads. He did cardio in the morning and then weightlifting and individual drills in the afternoon. Walker said every drill in offseason practices revolves around transition in order to prepare players for Pitino’s desired pace.
Walker said he has trimmed one minute off his mile run, posting a personal best of 6 minutes, 45 seconds. And he actually can dunk a basketball now at the end of a workout. Before, he would be too tired for anything more than a layup.
“My mentality is changing,” he said. “I feel more athletic now, so I go up and dunk it.”
Walker loves the way he feels and the comments he receives from teammates about his physical appearance and the way he moves on the court. More than anything, he has given himself a chance to realize his potential as a basketball player. His role in Pitino’s program hinged on it.
“I don’t think I would have seen the court at all,” he said.
Nobody knows how much he will play, even with these changes. Walker must prove that he can maintain his target weight and not slip into old habits. And he still needs to earn Pitino’s trust and show that he can function in his system. The Gophers aren’t exactly stocked with big men, so an opportunity exists.
We still don’t know Walker’s ceiling as a player. But he can come closer to touching it now than he could a few months ago.