Gophers make a find among their losses in freshman guard Andre Hollins

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 8, 2012 - 11:54 AM

Andre Hollins' development has been a bright spot in a difficult season.

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Gophers freshman Andre Hollins.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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What does the face of a leader look like?

Tough. Strong. Unyielding. The face must be all of those things

What does the face of a leader look like when things aren't going well - when a team is collapsing down the stretch and can't get over the hump?

Solemn. Stern.

Right?

As the 2011-12 Gophers limp into the Big Ten tournament, it's hard to find that face. It's hard to find a leading presence on a team that struggles to develop a go-to player, struggles to turn up an inspiring voice.

What does the face of a leader look like?

Maybe it's not so tough, not so stern, even in the worst of times.

Maybe it's cloaked in a contagious smile, and maybe that's just what the Gophers need right now.

Andre Hollins - who has started the Gophers' past three games and is averaging 6.7 points and 1.6 assists a game - hasn't achieved that status yet, but he might be the best prospect.

"He started getting better, and he's going to get better," said Jesus Patino, Hollins' high school coach at White Station in Tennessee. "He's going to be unreal. He's going to be the face of the program before he gets out -- because he has personality, he's that kind of kid. He's got it all."

As this season wanes, with the Gophers extreme long shots to win the Big Ten championship and get to the NCAA tournament, Hollins -- despite being just a freshman -- is showing sparks of promise and hints of something the Gophers are sorely lacking: leadership.

"He's a guy that's always had it," coach Tubby Smith said. "He's a guy that you want to put the ball into his hands now and you want to give him that opportunity."

This season could be remembered as a lost year in many regards, starting with Trevor Mbakwe's season-ending knee injury and continuing with a poor start and finish to the conference season. But it also be remembered eventually as the year Andre Hollins showed up -- grinning from cheek to cheek.

"Everybody just calls me Smiley," Hollins said. "It's just how I am. My mom said when I was a little kid, I would wake up smiling."

But anyone who sees that smile as carefree doesn't know the freshman very well.

"Don't let that smile fool you," Patino said. "He's a competitor. I've been around him a long time, and he smiles when he's winning and when he's losing. But if he's smiling after losing, it's because he's trying to cover it up. Because he's upset. That's how he deals with things."

And at White Station, that was how Hollins led -- with hard work, with success, with a scolding word when players weren't giving it their all.

But also with a smile.

"He was one of those guys who waited his turn and then he held everybody accountable," Patino said. "He got on teammates better. His teammates were better because he challenged them about what we wanted, that winning was the most important thing. His junior and senior year he never cut anybody any slack that was messing around, trying to do the wrong thing."

Coming to Minnesota and the Big Ten as a freshman point guard, it was easy to defer. But slowly, the confidence started to build. After an early ankle injury began to fully heal, Hollins said he started to feel more like himself on the floor. When he walked out on the court at Michigan State on Jan. 25, he felt 100 percent healthy for the first time. And with renewed strength came a returned faith in himself. Since then, Hollins has averaged 9.9 points a game and has scored in double digits four times, including games of 20 and 18 points.

"I wasn't comfortable, and it came with confidence. Confidence plays a huge role," Hollins said. "When your teammates have confidence in you and you have confidence in yourself ... that's just being a good leader."

Now the Gophers need that more than ever. With on-court pressures not redeemed and off-court distractions becoming a popular point of discussion, the Gophers are desperate for someone to take the reins. Smith knows he needs it. Hollins is willing and ready to take it. And Patino believes the freshman is primed to show the Gophers what the face of a leader looks like.

"He's doing that," Patino said. "I'm surprised it's this early, but I think he's going to be Minnesota's kid."

  • BIG TEN TOURNAMENT

    Gophers vs. Northwestern • 4:30 p.m. today

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