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

Gophers basketball summer series: Andre Hollins

Posted by: Amelia Rayno under College basketball, Gophers coaches, Gophers players Updated: July 18, 2014 - 10:58 AM

These days, University of Minnesota basketball coaches see lot of a familiar and welcome sight:

Andre Hollins' smile.

After the guard's limping finish to the season, it's the only sign assistant coach Dan McHale needs to tell him things are back to normal.

"I think he's the Andre Hollins that the fans remember from a while ago right now," McHale said. "He has a bounce-back in his game, he's healthy."

This summer, the senior combo guard has been the first player to walk in the Bierman gym in the mornings; the last to leave after practice. He's taken on a bigger leadership role in an attempt to put to use all of the energy he's exuding daily.

It's a far state from last year's end.

Hollins averaged 16.2 points a game in his first 19, a strong start. Then, against Wisconsin at home, Hollins went up for a jumpshot in the first five seconds and landed on a defender's foot when he came down. 

The ensuing ankle sprain was given the adjective "severe." The pictures that Hollins tweeted revealed a joint so swollen it more closely resembled an eggplant than a foot.

Officially, he missed just two games. Practically, he looked absent for most of the remainder of the season.

"I don't think people realized, I don't think we really realized -- because he's such such a good kid -- how much the injury affected him," McHale said. "I think it was evident a little bit with his game in the second part of the year, after the Wisconsin game. But he's the type of kid that puts the team first, guts it out."

That Hollins did. With the Gophers having lost consecutive games without their veteran guard and desperately fighting to stay in the race for the NCAA tournament, Hollins returned to join the team at Purdue. 

"He has no business playing, and he didn't say boo," McHale said. "He said 'Tell me what I need to do.' That's his best attribute. All he cares about is winning. And he was hurting. He was hurting bad. We were in the middle of it, on the bubble and everything, and the kid never said I'm not playing."

But the hours on the court took their toll. The swelling in Hollins' ankle was slow to go down. He struggled to regain his versatility, settling for perimeter shots rather than challenge opponents with a drive. His penchant for cutting to the rim and drawing contact all but disappeared. 

His numbers sank correspondingly; he averaged 11.3 points a game the rest of the way.

Perhaps most concerning was the departure of his most signature asset.

"I don't know if he smiled at the end of the year," McHale said. "And this is a kid that smiles all day long."

After the Gophers won the NIT championship -- he smiled on that day at least -- Hollins took a break and then went to work rehabbing.

He worked with strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown to stretch and strengthen the joint and his hip, which had gotten jammed after he shifted his weight around in awkward ways to avoid pressure on the ankle. He avoided the pounding of regular training. He took ice baths. He pulled out a spongy mat and practiced yoga. Ultimately, he was able to avoid the surgery on his hip that the team considered.

Out came the smile.

"You can see that he's having a lot of fun right now." McHale said.

With the ankle no longer a concern, Hollins can focus on other things. In particular: his explosiveness, the Gophers' summer project for him.

Now, after workouts, Hollins will stay in the gym with Brown, pushing around 90-pound plates on a sled for 10-second spurts.

This season being his last, Hollins is more motivated than ever, McHale said. He's feeling good again, the physical health feeding into well-being of the mental variety. He has a chip on his shoulder after getting left off all three All-Big Ten teams last season. And if you ask McHale, the smiling senior is ready to change that.

"He's not going to be satisfied with a .500 year in the Big Ten," McHale said. "The kid looks so good in workouts right now ... he's playing as good as he has since I've been here."

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