U point guard Andre Hollins plays basketball with such exuberance that sometimes you can overlook his inner drive.
The kid with the biggest grin in the building fell to the court floor, despondent. His basketball team, the White Station Middle School Spartans, was on the playoff bubble and his misfired free throws had cost the squad a critical late-season game.
The seemingly constant smile had been wiped off the face of Andre Hollins, then an eighth-grader in Memphis, as he processed that the Spartans might not make it.
"We had to pick him up off the floor," said his father, Andrew Hollins. "He doesn't like to lose, and he learned that at a very young age."
Hollins has been through a lot of stages since then -- winning three state championships in high school before joining the Gophers last year and feeling the sting of defeat again -- but the sophomore point guard is once again a critical piece of a team that's hoping to create some late-season magic in a season that tips off Friday night against American.
And as Hollins learned last year, even after years of winning, the bite of losing still feels the same. The Gophers endured a four-game losing streak early and a six-game streak late in the Big Ten season.
"I hate losing," said Hollins, lamenting that because it had been so long since he had lost more than a game or two in a row, the feeling felt new again. "It's just my competitive nature."
Hollins was the Gophers' fifth-leading scorer last season (8.7 point per game) and wasn't their flashiest player in two exhibition games this month. Joe Coleman scored by far the most points. Rodney Williams awed with dunks. Trevor Mbakwe and Mo Walker got attention in their returns from injury.
But a college basketball team often goes only as far as a point guard will take it. As such, this much is true:
"This is Andre's team," former Gophers player and current broadcaster Kevin Lynch said. "And he's got to play like this is his team."
The 6-1, 200-pound point guard began shouldering that label at the end of last season, when as a freshman he shook off a lingering ankle injury -- the first injury of his career, and the first time he'd ever missed a game -- and guided the Gophers on an important run to the NIT championship game.
"You really saw his game grow," teammate Rodney Williams said.
Hollins started scoring in bunches, averaging 19.5 points a game in six games combined in the Big Ten tournament and NIT, before scoring four in the championship loss. And a combo guard started to look a little more like a point guard.
Coach Tubby Smith and Hollins' teammates repeated the mantra that they knew it was just a matter of time, but when Hollins actually did take control, he started building a reputation around college basketball. This year, with Minnesota considered a team not only worthy of making the NCAA tournament but also perhaps winning a game there for the first time during Smith's tenure, the country will be watching.
"I think he's going to be a tremendous player for us," Smith said. "I want to see him do a better job of taking care of the basketball. We know he can score. But I like the way he played last year."
Hollins -- who said he hasn't gained any weight but came to the first practices of the year visibly more toned -- is ready for the scrutiny.
"I feel like a point guard," he said of a position he admitted felt a little awkward playing at first, as a freshman. "All my teammates, I know they trust me and I trust them -- it's that trust factor."
Just like Dad
Talking to Andrew Hollins, it's easy to see where Andre inherits his personality. The former middle school and high school coach's voice is full of liveliness and southern charm as he warns a reporter not to let him talk her ear off.
It's no surprise young Andre seemed to have a huge grin glued to his face, no matter what he was doing.
Running sprints? Smiling. Sitting on the bench? Smiling. Playing against one of his biggest high school rivals? Full-tooth grin.
"I have to get on him -- 'Son, quit smiling! You're supposed to be mean! This is the time to be mean, get angry, you're supposed to be rough!'" Andrew said, chuckling.
It's a contagious enthusiasm that makes the rare dichotomy stunning.
After the Gophers lost to Michigan in the Big Ten tournament -- leaving them unsure whether they would play another game -- Hollins sat in the Indianapolis locker room, eyes watery and cheeks sunken in a way that made his face seem organically changed.
But Hollins always has had a second gear for the end of the year. A final surge.
After eighth-grade Hollins was picked up off the court, his team won a rematch with that opponent, and Hollins had consecutive 40-point games in the playoffs. And when the Gophers had their season extended in the NIT, Hollins was there again.
"Every year, when it comes to playoffs, he really gears up," Andrew Hollins said. "He takes it on himself as a personal type of deal, and he's done that all of his career."
The kid who spent his formative years as a center and forward -- Hollins was so big in elementary school, he earned the nickname "Andre the Giant" -- learned early to always look ahead.
His 5-11 father, having the foresight to know the early growth spurt might not continue at the same rate, spent Saturdays and Sundays in the gym with Andre, working on ballhandling skills and perimeter shooting.
"I said 'Son, I don't know if you're going to [always] be this tall,'" the elder Hollins said.
That effort paid off when Hollins moved from small forward to point guard in his senior year of high school. Now, Hollins knows the things that worked for him last year won't necessarily have the same effect now. Because of his end-of-season success, he knows there will be increased attention given to his proven outside shot, and that he'll have to continue to transform his game to adapt -- pump-faking and driving more often, and creating more opportunities for teammates.
But some, including Smith, believe Hollins is uniquely equipped for the job. The sophomore's demeanor keeps him steady, positive. He has long prepared for the next jump.
And a final loss -- 75-51 to Stanford in the NIT final -- left Hollins with the fire he takes into this year.
"There's still way more to do," he said, his jaw line growing rigid with intensity. "We want a chance for redemption."
And then, a moment later, a smile spilled out and spread wide over Hollins' face.
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