After the Gophers men’s basketball team trudged away from a 94-73 loss at Iowa last Sunday, coach Richard Pitino gathered his team, with a special message for his reserves:
Make me play you.
One game later, Mo Walker proved he was listening.
Against the Hawkeyes, the Gophers defense began unraveling in the second half. The Gophers weren’t getting the same spark from their starters. But Pitino didn’t have many alluring options off the bench.
Three days later against Wisconsin, the Gophers found themselves with the same need for production from the backups. Starting center Elliott Eliason was struggling and star guard Andre Hollins injured his left ankle only seconds into the game.
This time, Walker ignited the team in a major way.
The backup big man showed the post game he has been hinting at in an 81-68 victory over the Badgers, scoring 12 consecutive points in a huge first-half stretch to put the Gophers up 21-15, and finishing with career highs in points (18) and rebounds (nine).
“[Pitino just said the guys on the bench are what are going to take the team to the next level,” Walker said. “Certain guys will be out on the floor and are going to mess up, but the guys on the bench don’t really force him to play them. So basically, I took that and I worked extra hard in practice — I was trying to make a statement. That I want to be on the court. I want to play. I want to contribute.”
The Gophers will need to sustain that kind of frontcourt presence moving forward. Sunday, they visit Nebraska, a somewhat undersized team that still has shown the capability of taking down one-dimensional offensive teams such as Ohio State.
When the Gophers can force an opponent to focus its defensive effort in the paint, it gives their talented backcourt players the space they need to attack.
It made all the difference against Wisconsin. Before the game, Pitino wrote on the locker room white board, “Bigs, you need to demand the ball.”
Walker certainly did that, taking advantage of Wisconsin’s weaker frontcourt when Badgers center Frank Kaminsky took a seat early with two fouls. Walker fought for positioning on the block and was efficient at scoring inside. He was as eager as he has ever been in looking for opportunities, taking 11 shots in all.
It was exactly the type of aggressiveness Pitino wanted to see.
“I don’t know if it was me as much as he decided,” the coach said. “Every play that we run for the most part, whether it’s a pick-and-roll or a baseline runner, it ends in a post-up. But he demanded it. … He was posting up so big that guys had to throw it in there. So it was more him than me.”
Just a few games ago, Walker seemed destined to be relegated to spot minutes after platooning with Eliason in the early part of the schedule. With Eliason playing well, Walker averaged only 6.5 minutes in a four-game stretch that included Purdue, Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State.
But against the Buckeyes, something started to turn. Walker played just six minutes but was extremely efficient with them, recording five points on 2-for-2 shooting, a pair of rebounds and a steal. The next time out at Iowa, the 6-10 junior got 17 minutes, finishing with six points and five rebounds. Against Wisconsin, he took off, a trend the Gophers are hoping will continue this weekend.
“I know he could always do that,” Eliason said. “I practice against him every day and he is just tough down low. He’s got great moves with his big body, he knows how to use his body, so on such a big stage, it’s nice to see. I’m so happy for the guy, man. We’re a team, our post players are like brothers, we do everything together, bang into each other every day.”