Sitting at his locker — surrounded by reporters and resting with his shirt off — Mo Walker looked like a different person.
A year ago, at about 310 pounds, the big man barely played and rarely got the locker room attention he received Monday night at Williams Arena after the Gophers’ 101-67 exhibition victory over Concordia (St. Paul).
But then, not much is the same.
In the Gophers’ final tuneup before Friday’s season opener, a slimmed-down and toned-up Walker fit seamlessly into a new role: the star. The center, who has come off the bench in both exhibitions, led the team with 17 points and added 13 rebounds and two blocks in 24 minutes in by far his best performance as a Gopher.
Had Monday’s game counted toward the official stats, Walker would have set career highs in points and rebounds.
“Mo did a great job on the boards,” fellow center Elliott Eliason said. “And it’s really encouraging to see that going into the season.”
Last season, Walker played only 6.6 minutes a game, averaging 2.2 points and two rebounds. Now, after losing 60 pounds over the offseason, the redshirt junior is playing like a new man. Walker has more energy under the basket and has demonstrated some spring early as well. He dunked again in the first half Friday, his second slam in two exhibitions.
“It just shows you he’s playing with a lot of confidence, feels good about himself,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “He’s still got to be more aggressive in my opinion than what he’s been, because he’s a really talented player.”
Monday, he provided a big lift. With Minnesota leading only 18-14 with 11:17 left in the first half, the center scored eight points to guide the Gophers on a 25-14 run. He helped to nail the coffin on Concordia down the stretch, as Minnesota effectively and systematically wore down the Golden Bears with their intense pace.
Walker’s performance highlighted a frontcourt that showed more aggressiveness than the game before, something the Gophers will badly need if they are to be competitive this season. Oto Osenieks had a big second half as well as two big blocks in the first. Joey King had a good all-around game, finishing with nine points, five rebounds and three steals. Elliott Eliason added eight points and three boards.
Getting some help from guards Andre and Austin Hollins, the Gophers outrebounded Concordia 45-31 after falling short of Cardinal Stritch’s final total on Friday.
Still, there is plenty of work to be done. Walker contributed four turnovers to the Gophers’ 14 overall — at a couple of points, opponents were able to simply swat the ball away from him in the post.
“I didn’t see the guy digging down, and he stripped the ball from me,” he said. “Little things like that are sometimes just unfortunate.”
Walker has plenty of room to get better, Pitino said. Right now, though, the improvement is obvious.