This is Amelia Rayno's third season on the Gophers men's basketball beat. She learned college basketball in North Carolina (Go Tar Heels!), where fanhood is not an option. In 2010, she joined the Star Tribune after graduating from Boston's Emerson College, which sadly had no exciting D-I college hoops to latch onto. Amelia has also worked on the sports desk at the Boston Globe and interned at the Detroit News.

  Follow Rayno on Twitter @AmeliaRayno

Pitino makes Elliott Eliason the Gophers fourth captain

Posted by: Amelia Rayno under College basketball, Gophers coaches, Gophers players Updated: January 15, 2014 - 6:15 PM

The words describing Elliott Eliason have changed dramatically in the last six months.

When coach Richard Pitino arrived and started working heavily with the team, he had a well-worn array of adjectives for the big man:

"Out-of-shape" and "over-reactive" were among them.

These days, that vocabulary has changed, not just from the mouth of Pitino but around the Big Ten.

Words describing Eliason include "consistent," "game-changer" and "elite shot-blocker."

And now, "captain."

Pitino announced on Wednesday that he had elected to make Eliason the team's fourth captain, along with junior Andre Hollins and seniors Austin Hollins and Maverick Ahanmisi.

"He deserves it," Pitino said. "I think he's worked his butt off and I think he's separating himself as a leader, and I think he's one of the most improved players, certainly in our league but if not in the country."

Through four games of Big Ten play, Eliason has averaged nine points and 10 rebounds, while adding 16 total blocks. He's been a force inside as a defensive difference-maker, playing the critical last line of defense in the Gophers' full-court press.

"In this league, there are a lot of fast guys and it's hard to stay in front of everybody, so when they do get by us, he's down there to swat those balls away, and he's huge for us," Malik Smith said.

But that wasn't always the expectation. 

After averaging 2.2 points and 3.5 rebounds in a spot role last year, Eliason gained some weight over the summer and came into practice about 20 pounds overweight. 

Said Smith: "When I first got here in June, honestly, he really wasn't that good."

Said Pitino: "This is a guy when I took the job, he almost had a nervous breakdown every time he made a mistake. And now, he's confident, he's leading and I think it's a necessary step for him moving forward."

But Eliason lost the weight and got into the best shape, he's said, of his life. He gained confidence and it began to show up on the court. As his role has expanded, the Nebraska native has emerged as the most vocal of all the captains -- with the Hollins' leading more with their play -- Pitino and Smith agreed.

And still, the side of Eliason that is quick to be self-critical and slow to acknowledge success came out just a little when Pitino gave his starting center the news of his captainship.

"He's funny," Pitino said. "He's kind of an unconfident kid and I think he was excited because he's growing out of that a little bit. He's maturing in that way and he's leading better. He's becoming so much more vocal. I said 'Elliott, you probably, on a consistent basis, are top two on our team when it comes to working hard every single day and leading every single day.' 

"'I think you deserve this.'"

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