When Gophers backup center Mo Walker was told he would miss the first six games of his junior season, staying focused was the immediate challenge.
Walker looked poised for improvement after dropping nearly 60 pounds and excelling in two exhibition games. Before this season, he had endured a vacillating start to his career in maroon and gold, his promise swallowed by weight issues and injuries over the past three seasons. Now, he had been caught violating university policy — the Gophers never unveiled the specific offense — and would miss the first six games of the new Minnesota era under Richard Pitino.
“He was disappointed,” Pitino said. “He’s a prideful kid, and he’s a good kid and he knows he made a mistake. But he’s had a great attitude. He was frustrated. You get all this excitement. Certainly, a new coaching staff and a new regime, that first game — everybody wants to be a part of it, playing really well. But he’s been very positive, I’m proud of him and the team has all stuck by him pretty good.”
A month later, the 6-10 Walker returned to the court, donning his uniform for the first time this season in the Gophers’ second-round game against Arkansas in the Maui Invitational. He appeared more comfortable the next game, against Division II Chaminade.
And with the Gophers facing a big, physical Florida State at home on Tuesday — the Seminoles play two 7-plus-footers in Boris Bojanovsky and Michael Ojo — his return will be highly valued.
For the first six games of the season, starting center Elliott Eliason was the only personnel option to act as rim protector and that made the team incredibly vulnerable to foul trouble. When Eliason did have to sit, 6-8 power forward Joey King had to anchor an extremely small and thin frontcourt.
“That’s definitely huge for us,” Malik Smith said of Walker’s reinstatement. “Our biggest guy is in there, and when he gets into foul trouble, we’re pretty much undersized at all times. To have a guy like Mo come back — a hard worker, a 7-footer — it brings a lot of size and a lot of rebounding.”
After Walker was suspended, Smith said team members texted their teammate, telling him to hold his head high and keep working.
The Ontario native took the advice, he says, doing extra workouts set up by Pitino to maintain his weight and conditioning.
“I had a pretty rough practice after I found out [about the suspension],” Walker said. “But coach said ‘It’s not about you anymore, it’s about the team and do what you’ve got to do to make us better.’ And so that’s what I put all my time and energy and effort into.”
Still, there are challenges for the big man after missing as much time as he did. Walker looked rusty in his debut against Arkansas, managing just one point and one rebound in 11 minutes. Against Chaminade — admittedly a much easier opponent — Walker looked more capable, finishing with 10 points and seven rebounds in a game where he was greatly needed with Eliason struggling.
“It was good to shake some of the rust off,” Walker said. “In the first game, I wasn’t really looking to be aggressive at all. I was much more passive, trying not to do too much. But the second game I felt like I could pretty much do my thing out there. I got a few rebounds early, scored a few points early, and I felt good about myself.”
And of Eliason’s performance in his absence, he noted: “It’s tough to see him out there doing it alone, but at the same time, I’m really happy for him because he played well. He played really well, actually.”
In the six games leading up to Arkansas, Walker wasn’t able to do much other than try to be happy for his teammates. He was active on the bench, cheering and greeting guys as they came off the floor, and he kept Eliason going hard in practice. But the rest must be played out on the court.
“He hasn’t been practicing that much,” Pitino said. “Bits and pieces. Now he’s back in the fold a little bit more. So he’s just going to have to get all the timing and understand what we’re trying to do offensively and defensively. He’ll get acclimated to it sooner rather than later.”