Before the start of the season -- I know it's hard to remember that long ago, when the vibe around this team felt so different -- there was a fair amount of back-and-forth about who coach Richard Pitino would be starting at center.
Very quickly, the 6-foot-10 Mo Walker established himself as the right choice -- his post offense gives the Gophers a force inside that has been a critical piece of most of their wins. But as the non-conference slate waged on, raw 6-foot-11 newcomer Bakary Konate took many of the reserve minutes Eliason was expected to occupy. Pitino hinted that when Big Ten play began, Konate would be playing fewer minutes, and indeed, after playing for four minutes in the opener at Purdue, the freshman big sat for four straight games. But as the Gophers struggles piled, Pitino was forced to eye the future and make sure Minnesota could offer some hope for next year. Konate started coming off the bench before Eliason, who got a total of just eight minutes in games vs. Rutgers, at Nebraska -- his home state -- and vs. Illinois.
The fifth-year senior looked visibly frustrated, and understandably so.
"It's difficult at times," 6-foot-11 Eliason said on Friday. "As a personal thing, you've just got to not give in. If you quit and stop working hard in practice, act like it's over and you're just done. You can't give in and I think we've kept fighting as a team and I kept fighting as an individual and I think that's why I got myself out of -- why I've been able to play a little more lately. I think that's just what you have to do, you have to keep fighting as hard as you can. It's not fun, it's tough, but it's what you've got to do."
In the last few weeks of practice, Pitino has seen that fight. The coach began noticing small moments where Eliason would encourage Konate or give him a piece of advice. He started noticing his veteran's attitude changing.
His response? Swapping the reserve big men in the rotation.
"I give a lot of credit to Elliott because I was playing a freshman over him," Pitino said. "Players, in my opinion, they force you to play them. Everybody puts it on the coach, players are going to make you decide whether or not you're going to play them by their performance in practice and their performance on the court. And Elliott just wouldn't let me play Bakary over him while (providing) healthy competition but also teaching Bakary. So he's been a great leader for us."
In the last two games, Eliason has played a total of 24 minutes while putting up eight points and adding eight rebounds, three assists and a block. Konate, meanwhile, has picked up just three minutes in that span after struggling mightily with fouling.
"It's just kind of swallowing your pride a little bit," Eliason. I put myself back in a situation where I was a freshman and I had a bunch of big guys ahead of me, and this is how I'd want to be treated if I was in that situation, and so I'm trying to teach him the things that I can, I'm trying to be positive with him and it's because I think he has a great future here. I don't want to be negative just for self interest or some petty reason. I try to help him as much as I can. Obviously I want to play the minutes, but I'm just trying to help him and do everything I can for him and be supportive and I think he does the same for me."
Eliason has a reputation as a very emotional player, a characteristic that can work against him when he beat himself up too much. Staying optimistic, he said, has real results in how he plays.
"I think it's a big part," he said. "You're already losing and you're already not playing a lot -- there is already the weight of the world on you, you don't need [to be] just hammering yourself and push yourself down even more. So it's just staying positive and keep working even though things aren't going your way ...Just kind of keeping a positive outlook, seeing the big picture and understanding that you're just a small piece of that."