This time around, there is a good chance Bo Ryan’s scouting report looks a little different. The Gophers’ guards had been the focus of opposing defenses throughout the early portion of the schedule, and the pillar of Minnesota’s interior offensive identity was the occasional variation of center Elliott Eliason scoring off the pick-and-roll.
Now, with No. 21 Wisconsin facing the Gophers for a second time this season Thursday, a new element has been introduced.
In the past five games, Mo Walker has come alive. The big man is taking over, turning Minnesota’s already efficient offense into a new, more versatile one — increasingly important with the backcourt going through ups and downs, some created by guard Andre Hollins’ sprained ankle, which forced him to miss almost three full games.
“It’s changed,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said of the offense. “Since the Wisconsin game, our offense has evolved to more of a low-post threat. [Walker] gives us great confidence, we’re looking for him more. Especially with no Andre Hollins [who is “close to 100 percent” in rehabbing his severe left ankle sprain, according to Pitino] healthy enough just yet, we need to go inside. We’re too easy to guard with Andre not 100 percent.
“I think Mo is settling in to be one of the tougher guys to guard on the block in this conference. He’s a tough out, he really is.”
It was the Badgers — back in the Associated Press Top 25 poll after a week off following five losses in six games — who endured Walker’s coming-out party. On Jan. 22, then-No. 9 Wisconsin came to Williams Arena and was met with an extremely aggressive Walker. The 6-10 junior collected 18 points and nine rebounds, pushing Minnesota to an 81-68 victory in which Hollins exited in the game’s opening seconds after injuring his ankle.
Now, Bo Ryan and Co. will have to try to stop Walker again with an interior defensive corps the coach admits isn’t quite up to Wisconsin standards.
“It’s been probably, from our level, average,” Ryan said. “With the group we had before, with [Jared] Berggren, [Ryan] Evans and [Mike] Bruesewitz, we had become quite a formidable defensive front line. They graduated, and the guys filling those spots now have a learning curve. It is what it is. We’ve had some good games, and some games where we’ve struggled.”
These days, it seems Walker is only getting better. Since that Wisconsin game, the backup center has averaged 14.2 points and 6.4 rebounds, aptly getting big minutes with starter Eliason struggling somewhat. The breakout outing for Walker against Wisconsin does not appear to have been a fluke.
The manner in which he’s scoring is as impressive as the totals. Walker has always had a reputation for a soft touch and a good outside shot, but lately he’s embodied more of a stereotypical big man under the basket — the very thing no one thought Minnesota had on the roster before the season.
In the last couple of weeks, Walker has appeared to improve tremendously at attacking the basket without the hesitation that categorized his previous post moves. He has displayed a new fearlessness at taking on opposing centers, tweaking his footwork and approach.
“I think this year, individual workouts have helped a lot,” Walker said. “We work on all these moves that you see me doing like daily pretty much. And just the constant confidence that Coach gives me to be aggressive down low.”
He’s not shooting three-pointers anymore — Walker said the opportunities don’t open up as much with Pitino’s offense as they did with Tubby Smith’s, but even if they did, he isn’t sure he’d take them for fear of being immediately pulled — but that doesn’t mean the center isn’t confident about that aspect of his game, too.
“Coach Pitino has said a few times if you shoot that, I’m taking you out,” Walker said with a mischievous grin. “But before practice every day, I shoot a few and I hit ’em. I hit ’em.”
Pitino has called Walker and Eliason the “two-headed monster” he’d hoped they’d be at the beginning of the season, with Eliason — the better natural rebounder of the two — still remaining strong on defense. Eliason, who goes head-to-head with Walker on the practice court nearly every day, says his teammate’s progress is nothing new to him, but Gophers fans are seeing Walker putting everything together.
“I think it’s finally practice coming through,” Eliason said. “[Walker’s] just had great game after great game here … me and him compete so much every day and he’s finally doing what he does in practice in the games, and he’s being really successful.”