Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino, frustrated with his team’s lack of physicality in the first seven games of Big Ten play, issued a demand before Saturday’s game:
“We’re going to be back in this locker room after the game, bloody and bruised,” Pitino later recounted telling his players before the 79-71 victory over Illinois, Minnesota’s second conference victory.
The call to battle seemed to work: The Gophers turned in one of their more physical outings of the season, especially on the glass, where Minnesota outrebounded the Illini 38-30.
At the heart of the improvements was senior center Mo Walker, who literally returned to the locker room bleeding, after finding himself in the path of Kendrick Nunn’s follow-through while trying to take a charge with just over two minutes left in the game. Walker, who needed four stitches to close up the bulbous gash over his left eye, was called for a block instead — a call he later questioned — but the sentiment remained. His 12 points, 13 rebounds and overall dominance in the paint in the second half set the tone for the victory, and his strong play will be vital again Wednesday if the Gophers (13-8, 2-6 Big Ten) want to start their first league winning streak at Penn State (13-7, 1-6).
“Mo started playing like Mo again,” guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “And when he’s playing like that, we’re a really hard team to beat.”
Minnesota is 6-3 in games in which Walker snares at least eight rebounds, going back to last season. And his overall rebounding is trending the right way: After averaging 5.5 boards in nonconference games, the 6-10, 255-pound Walker is pulling down an average of 8.9 in the past seven.
Sometimes Walker still needs a nudge to elicit such numbers. After posting only four points and four rebounds at Nebraska — one of his worst nights this season — he managed only two free throws, four rebounds and no baskets in the first half against Illinois.
That’s when Pitino, who has joked in the past that he has to punch the laid-back Walker to get him “mean” on the court, challenged his big man.
“You’ve got to have more pride than that,” the coach told him at halftime. “You’re a better player than that.”
Pitino added later: “I think he’d had enough of it, and he just wanted to control his own destiny.”
Sure enough, in the second half, Walker went 5-for-8 from the field and added nine rebounds to his total, prompting Illini coach John Groce to call Walker and Gophers guard Andre Hollins “beyond the shadow of a doubt, the best two players on the floor today.”
Said Walker: “I started the game out a little slow. I felt like I was rebounding well, but offensively I wasn’t doing much. I felt like I was playing solid defense. In the second half, I kind of kept with it and the game flowed with me better.”
Unlike several games this season, Walker wasn’t double-teamed in the post. Instead, Illinois focused on keeping him from establishing a deep position once he got the ball. But Walker found other ways to score, getting three of his five baskets off offensive rebounds.
Walker is averaging 12 points per game, third-highest on the Gophers, and a team-high 6.7 rebounds. He’s shooting 59.8 percent from the field, the best among the Gophers starters and third-best in the Big Ten. He also ranks in the top 10 in the conference in offensive rebounding (2.5, third), rebounding average (eighth) and blocks (1.3, 10th).
With defenses zeroing in on him as he’s continued to improve, Walker will need to continue to be creative and let his mean side show, whether or not he is being challenged. Opponents have made a habit of slapping at the ball or trying to reach in from behind him as he’s posted up, because it has often worked.
“Mo knows what it takes to compete at this level,” Pitino said. “I say to him all the time, ‘Why do we need to go down that road of me yelling at you?’ We don’t. You know you’ve got to play tough. Sometimes it’s lighting a fire under him a little bit and other times it’s maybe he needs to get punched first to react a little bit. We need that from him, and he’s still not there. … A little bit of that is just who he is. But that improvement, still we can get that.”