Before Elijah Hawkins led Howard to the NCAA tournament and before helping turn around the Gophers, he was an under-5-foot middle school point guard in Washington, D.C., winning wherever he went.

Hawkins' toughness and talent for his size were already bigger than those of most kids his age. That drew the attention of the prestigious DeMatha Catholic, a perennial East Coast basketball power.

If Hawkins could make it there, he could make it anywhere, he thought.

"There was a lot of great competition from middle school on up to high school," the Gophers junior point guard said. "Coming from D.C. is just a different pedigree, so I just play with that mentality every day."

Still the smallest player on most nights, the 5-11 Hawkins has loomed large as the NCAA Division I leader in assists this season, helping reawaken the Gophers fan base. He spearheads the team's exciting new style of play, and he will be counted on again Sunday in a battle of bubble teams at Nebraska.

"I feel like I have a lot of experience with winning," Hawkins said. "I had a lot to bring to the table."

Passing. Shooting. Speed. Good character. Hawkins checked all of the boxes for the Gophers last spring as they scoured the transfer portal for point guards.

"It was like, let's get this guy here ASAP and let's not let him go on any other visits," coach Ben Johnson said. "We were really choosy at that position."

Point guard grooming

DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., has been a breeding ground for point guards. Hawkins was able to learn from Justin Moore and Jahmir Young, who were two years older when he arrived in high school in 2017.

Moore is now a standout at Villanova. Young was one of the Big Ten's top guards for Maryland last year and faced Hawkins this season when the Gophers beat the Terrapins on Jan. 7 at Williams Arena.

"When he first got to DeMatha, the point guards who were there took Elijah under their wing," said Hawkins' former high school coach Mike Jones, now a Maryland assistant. "He learned as much as he could, but he also had to compete with them every day, and it set a standard."

By the time Hawkins was a high school junior, "it was his team, and he had to lead us," Jones said. That squad went 41-3 in two years and included former Connecticut guard Jordan Hawkins, now with the New Orleans Pelicans, and All-America player Hunter Dickinson, who went on to star at Michigan and now Kansas.

Surrounded by talent, Elijah Hawkins turned his short stature into an advantage, but he still had just one true Division I offer and no stars as a senior prospect. It was local university Howard that took a chance on him.

"He's always had the mentality of 'I'm smaller, so I have to be fast, I have to be tough and I have to be quick,' " Jones said.

Right fit for Gophers

The Gophers (17-9, 8-7 Big Ten) enter Sunday trending in the right direction toward the NCAA tournament, a place only Hawkins has gone among his teammates this year.

Hawkins is playing his best basketball again at the right time, most recently with a career-high 24 points and seven assists in Thursday's 88-79 victory over Ohio State. The Gophers are 10-2 when he scores in double figures.

"He kind of has the command in a quiet way," Johnson said. "Guys look at him for leadership, so I'm trying to get more out of him — to kind of make it his team now."

Howard was Hawkins' team last season when he led the way as a sophomore. The Bison won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament for their first trip to the Big Dance in 30 years. After losing in the first round to Kansas, Hawkins entered the transfer portal, looking for a bigger challenge.

The Gophers landed on his radar when assistant coach Jason Kemp reached out to Hawkins' uncle, Taj, the director of New World, where Hawkins played AAU basketball. A comfort grew when Kemp and Hawkins had family in the same neighborhood in Washington.

Hawkins' father, Ramont, played D-I basketball at Hampton, but he also went to junior college with Gophers forward Kadyn Betts' father. The Gophers pointed that out on the recruiting visit.

The stars were starting to align, but Hawkins had to see if the U was the right fit. He committed after an official visit last May and canceled other trips, including North Carolina State and Seton Hall.

"He fell in love with Minnesota when he got there," said Taj Hawkins, who played at IUPUI. "Once he got back, he said he found his school. Once he met the guys, he said, 'I think they need me.' "

Johnson surely needed veteran floor leaders Hawkins and Mike Mitchell Jr. to work together in a Gophers backcourt that included underclassmen Cam Christie and Braeden Carrington. Hawkins and Mitchell became very close as roommates and an inseparable pair.

"I think we have the same feel for the game," said Mitchell, a transfer from Pepperdine. "It's a pretty good relationship."

Hawkins worked to limit his turnovers after what he called some early "growing pains." He set a Gophers record with 17 assists vs. IUPUI in December and was tied for the nation's lead with 7.6 assists per game as of Friday with Marquette's Tyler Kolek.

The Gophers will likely go as far as Hawkins and top scorer Dawson Garcia take them.

"Me and Dawson are leaders of the team," Hawkins said. "We're the voices on the team. I feel like when we get it going, everybody else starts to follow us."