All year, Richard Pitino has been quick to say that his center spot is a platoon situation.
The Gophers coach has pointed out multiple times that while Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker have different skill sets, neither vastly out-talents the other, and while the former has started all season (except for one game, due to injury), Pitino has made it clear he wants the latter to play a big role as well.
Well, maybe that's changing.
In the last five games -- ever since returning from the ankle tweak that held him out for all but four minutes against New Orleans on Dec. 7 -- Eliason has begun to separate himself as the center of this Gophers basketball team, reaching a new level of production offensively while ever strengthening his rebounding and defensive capacities.
Meanwhile, Walker's minutes have failed to increase, with the big man playing an average of 13.5 compared with Eliason's 25.7 in the four games heading into last night's contest against Purdue, and then getting in the game for just five minutes against the Boilermakers.
"The sole reason was Elliott was playing great," Pitino said on today's media teleconference. Eliason had eight points, seven rebounds and six blocks (one off his career-high) against Purdue. "He was just really doing a lot of different things -- competing, blocking shots, running the floor well. So I think more than anything it was Elliott, not so much Mo."
And certainly, Eliason's play justifies that trend moving forward as well. In the last five games, the 6-11 center has average eight points and 8.8 rebounds a game, and has had a pair of big games to start the Big Ten. He's consistently demonstrated his ability to be a difference-maker on both ends of the court, both as a rim-protector and defensive rebounder, and with his sharp passing ability from the high post on the other end. In the last few games, his scoring totals have gone up as well -- from 5.8 points a game through the first nine -- as he's gotten more comfortable under the basket. He still needs to be more aggressive with the ball in one-on-one situations in the low post, but the improvement in that regard is obvious. Against the Boilermakers, he was able to be very aggressive while only picking up three fouls.
Although Walker has more natural footwork and scoring ability down low, he hasn't shown the same growth on the defensive end. Can he work his way back into a meaningful platoon situation? Maybe. But for now, it seems as though the job is Eliason's to lose.