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
These days, the University of Minnesota basketball coaches are seeing a lot more of Elliott Eliason's bare chest.
The center, one summer after losing more than 20 pounds and dramatically changing his body, walks around the court and weight room and Bierman Athletic Building, now, sans shirt.
Last season, Eliason essentially doubled his production from the previous year, going from 2.2 points and 3.5 rebounds a game to averaging five points and 6.6 rebounds, while playing eight more minutes than he had his sophomore year. Although his offensive output was largely inconsistent -- Eliason scored in double digits seven times but also scored four points or fewer 19 times -- he solidified himself as a highly valuable asset as the last line of defense. The Nebraska native finished with 72 blocks, ranking third in the Big Ten. His block percentage (10.6) landed 28th nationally according to kenpom.com.
Now, he's eliminated pesky injuries caused by being out of shape. He's lifting 185 pounds on the bar, up from 135. He's ripping off sets of chin-ups where before, reeling off just a couple was a struggle.
"I bring it up to him every day -- he's getting tired of it," strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown said. "Showing him what he was doing a year ago, what he's doing today.
"It's kind of eye opening."
Now, the Gophers are hoping Eliason will be able to take the next steps. With a base built last year -- a smaller frame and more strength -- Eliason can knuckle down on rounding out his game.
Assistant Dan McHale sat with the big man in his office earlier this season, going through each of his makes and misses. The patterns were obvious.
One of his goals is to improve his shooting, yes, but in a smart way: Perfecting a turn-around jumper that is already difficult to block because of his high release. Adding an 8-to-10 foot jumper that McHale believes will "surprise some people." And rather than forcing his weaknesses -- he will never be a back-to-the-basket player -- the coaches have Eliason working on securing a deep position in the paint more consistently, so he doesn't have to post up off the block.
"When he gets deep post position, you can't guard him," McHale said. "He's too big, he's too massive of a frame.
"It isn't reinventing the wheel with him. It isn't trying to get more counters or up-and-unders or drop-steps. It's definitely just trying to get post position."
Even so, the Gophers are well aware that Eliason's true worth comes on the other end of the court. He's established himself as an elite defensive rebounder (ranked 39th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage), post defender and rim runner while running the floor as well as any big man in the conference.
When Eliason keys in on those aspects of his game, McHale believes the offense will come. The assistant thinks the center could lead the Big Ten in rebounding this season, and transform himself into one of the better big men in the conference. His offense should never be the focus.
"The next thing he knows, he wakes up and he's got 10, 12 points," McHale said.
"He has to understand what makes him valuable ... He's never going to be a physically chiseled beat-you-up type of guy. The way Elliott is effective is he can out-run anyone in the league and he's got a long wingspan."
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino shook up the staff a little on Wednesday, when he hired coaching veteran Nate Pomeday as the new director of basketball operations.
The former DOBO, Josh Adel, will stay on the staff as an assistant to the head coach, a role created for the move. A source said the shift is not a demotion, but simply a "re-shuffling" of duties.
Pomeday most recently served as an assistant at Oregon State for six years. During that time, the Beavers had five nationally ranked recruiting classes and sent Jared Cunningham (24th overall) to the NBA draft, making him the program's first in 14 years. Pomeday, a Northwestern graduate, also previously worked as an assistant at Lake Forest (Ill.) Academy and Calumet College (Ind.) of St. Josephs.
"We are extremely excited about the addition of Nate Pomeday to our staff," Pitino said in a press release. "He has a wealth of knowledge and experience that will help us continue to grow as a basketball program.
As the new director of operations, Pomeday's main duties will involve setting the team's schedule.
Pomeday is the third DOBO Pitino has hired at Minnesota in his short tenure. Initially he hired Mike Balado from Florida International. Balado is currently an assistant at Louisville.
Mo Walker has a different kind of battle this year.
Last offseason, the Minnesota center was one of two players who stayed on campus all summer, eschewing the chance to go home for extra time on the treadmill.
He changed his diet -- avoiding sauces and fried food and eating after 8 p.m. And he changed his lifestyle. He would walk over to the recreation center late at night after workouts and summer classes and tutoring were over. He started taking long walks with his girlfriend. Strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown, meanwhile, banned him from going on any dates that involved food.
"I bring it up twice a week now," Brown said. "Just laughing with him about the stuff he put himself through to get to this point."
Yes, the major hurdles have been crossed. Sixty pounds lighter and infinitely more mobile, Walker became a relevant -- even dominant -- piece of the rotation again for the first time since his freshman season. But due to the constant conditioning of last summer, the Ontario native didn't have much time to work on getting stronger, and tougher in the paint.
Now he does.
The Gophers hope in the next three months Walker will be able to find the consistency he lacked a year ago. The center averaged 7.8 points and 4.5 rebounds last year, including 9.8 points and 5.3 rebounds in his final 19 games, but was prone to foul trouble and at times lost his aggressiveness.
"There's no reason he shouldn't be one of the best big men in the league if not a first-team All Big Ten guy next year," assistant Dan McHale said. "But it's up to him. He's too nice of a guy. He's too nice off the court. He needs to show that mean streak, and he knows it."
Walker had the ball knocked out of his hands in pivotal moments on several occasions; other times, he simply didn't seem tough enough to compete against the Big Ten's brawny frontcourts.
In the weight room, he's working on building muscle -- even though he's not putting on a ton of weight, Brown said his strength levels are going up weekly. On the floor, the skilled post man is focusing on his defense, while adding an outside shot.
Whether he or fellow senior center Elliott Eliason will start is still very much up in the air. The two bring very different skill sets to the table. But even if Walker doesn't get the nod right away, his ceiling has grown even higher this season, the team believes.
"He showed flashes last year of a guy that could be one of the more dominant big guys in the league," McHale said. "It's his senior year, and he's got the chance to be really good."
Ever since he was signed, JUCO transfer Carlos Morris has been the favorite to replace former senior Austin Hollins in the Minnesota starting lineup.
But not so fast, assistant coach Dan McHale said.
Yes, Morris has by all accounts been very impressive in the Gophers' summer workouts.
But so has another guard: Daquein McNeil.
The sophomore, who made headlines with his strong defensive play last year, originally asked Richard Pitino to redshirt his first year. The head coach told him no, believing he could help the team right away.
That instinct turned out to be right on point, with McNeil becoming one of the pleasant surprise in the heart of the Big Ten schedule -- during which the Gophers, as a team, struggled.
McNeil averaged 1.6 points and 1.1 rebounds in 9.7 minutes a game but became somewhat of a defensive specialist while playing multiple positions.
"We just threw him out there," McHale said. "We said 'Play the point guard, play the backup [shooting guard], play the [small forward]. He's such a utility guard ... and he didn't care, he knew all the plays from three different spots. For a freshman, that's pretty good."
McNeil's offensive ability was far behind that of his defense -- he might be the best current defender on the team now that Austin Hollins has left -- but the Gophers staff sees that changing. The Baltimore native has gained muscle and lost weight, McHale said, a combination that should help McNeil use his athleticism more effectively. Gophers fans already saw a playmaker capable getting in the lane and finding guys in transition and in the halfcourt. Now, he's dunking in practice; he's absorbing contact when he goes to the rim. He's gotten stronger and sturdier, aspects that many young prospects underrate until their first season in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten, McHale noted. And McNeil has been working steadily on improving his jumpshot. A year ago, the guard connected on 29.4 percent of his attempts from three-point range and 37.5 percent from the field.
"That always was his knock was that he's not a great outside shooter," McHale said. "He's really worked hard on it."
The improvement to this point is great enough to signal that Morris' starting spot is far from locked down. Regardless of what results from the battle of the lineup opening, the Gophers believe this could be a breakout season for McNeil.
"He's worked hard to where it's definitely going to be a challenge [for Morris]," McHale said. "He showed flashes last year ... He's the type of guy that could take the biggest jump."
At last, Andre Hollins is feeling back to his old self.
Six months after initially spraining his left ankle, the senior guard has a spring in his step once more. Read more about his transformation in my story in Wednesday's Star Tribune, here.
I caught up with Hollins on several other topics when I talked with him. I thought I'd share them here:
In his previous three college offseasons, Hollins has put on a bit of weight in the summer, mass he then has partly worked off once the seasons gets going. This summer, he's avoiding that extra fluctuation, he said. So far he has stayed right around 195.
"I'm very happy, he said. "I'm cut, I'm getting stronger, I'm maintaining my weight, getting pretty much 100 percent healthy."
Hollins started a few new habits in the wake of his ankle injury. He practices yoga now, and stretches more. He takes ice baths. And, he said, he's started cooking.
"I make pasta, I put a chicken in the oven, heat up vegetables," Hollins said. "Nothing too extravagant."
The team has just two hours a week with the coaches this time of year. Between those workouts -- Minnesota has had just one full practice, to this point -- the Gophers get together for pickup games at Bierman Athletic building.
This season, coach Richard Pitino challenged the team to make those weekend sessions more competitive by making a wager: the losing squad has to go through an extra "special" workout with strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown.
"It's whatever he comes up with," said Hollins of Brown's workouts, with a laugh. "Extra punishment ... We're definitely a competitive group, and that's what it takes. You have to hate to lose."
Assistant coach Dan McHale said recently that the coaches wanted Hollins' to focus on improving his explosiveness this summer. Another area the senior is keying in on is his ball control.
Hollins said after watching film, he's noticed he has the tendency to stand up too high while he's dribbling. During these offseason workouts, he's been working on keeping his stance and center of gravity low as he moves. Mastering that, he believes, will take his driving ability and his defensive quickness to the next level.
"It's a mental thing," he said. "Every day when I come in I have to tell myself, stay low, defensively and offensively, the low man wins ... It's hard sometimes because you get tired you automatically want to stand up."
While Hollins feels light years better than he did at the end of the season, his ankle still isn't technically healed. In fact, it's still swollen. The senior estimated that his left foot is still about 10 percent bigger than his right. At this point, of course, it fits comfortably in his shoe, and doesn't keep him up at night.
"It's one of those injuries that really sticks with you, probably about five years," he said. "It still bugs me a little bit but it's nothing that really hampers me or slows me down anymore. It's still just a lingering thing that's there."
The toughest part about getting hurt, Hollins said, was realizing that his body didn't react the way it normally did. Hollins would try to drive to the hoop and find that he was about a step slower than he thought he was, making the difference between him scooting past his defender and losing the opening.
What's more, the guard was accustomed to pushing off on his left -- injured -- foot for drives and layups. He began leading with the right foot instead when he returned last winter. Initially, it was extremely awkward, but slowly it has become more comfortable. As the summer began and the tenderness lingered, Hollins continue to lead with his right foot. He plans to keep the adjustment indefinitely.
"I've kind of switched now," he said.
Since JUCO transfer Carlos Morris and freshman guard Nate Mason have arrived on campus, Hollins has taken somewhat of a mentor role with the newcomers. The three of them, along with point guard DeAndre Mathieu, all work out in a group together.
"This is my fourth year here, fourth in the Big Ten, playing against some of the best competition in the nation," Hollins said. "I'm just trying to give them my experience, tell them things here and there -- what's going to work, what isn't going to work ... Little things like that so when it comes in practice, they'll already be prepared, they've already heard it. The quicker we learn it, the better we'll get."
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