The Gophers were a 6-8 in the Big Ten and a sizable disappointment when No. 1-ranked Indiana came into Williams Arena on Feb. 26, 2013. Five minutes into the second half, the Hoosiers were leading 44-36 and appeared on the way to a routine victory.
Coach Tubby Smith then waved in center Elliott Eliason and guard Maverick Ahanmisi, and a torch was lit. Ahanmisi hit a three, and then Eliason, firing up the full house on every trip, scored seven points in a row.
The Gophers caught Indiana at 56-all and went forward for a 77-73 victory. The students rushed the elevated floor, and it was the rare occasion when it was justified.
“You don’t beat the No. 1 team in country too often,” Eliason said.
He was sitting across a table from a reporter on a morning this week. He would walk a few blocks to the Carlson School of Management to attend a 10 a.m. class.
“It’s a marketing strategy class … meets twice a week,” Eliason said. “It’s the only class I have this semester. It’s mandatory to get a degree in marketing.”
This is Eliason’s fifth year at the university, so he was able to ease it back on the degree track and will graduate next month.
Grade point? “So-so,” he said, smiling. “It’s challenging at Carlson. They got the ‘smart kids’ there.”
Eliason was listed at 6-11 again this season, but that could be an inch shy. He was a three-star recruit out of Chadron, Neb. His college choices came down to Minnesota, Stanford and Creighton, and the Carlson School was important in the decision.
The idea of redshirting as a freshman in 2010-11 was left vague during his recruitment. On arrival, he joined a Gophers team with Ralph Sampson III, Colton Iverson and Trevor Mbakwe as junior big men.
“Tubby Smith and I had conversations about it and decided that redshirting was the way to go,” Eliason said.
A head coach having conversations with a player on what lies ahead on the court … that’s quite a concept.
It is a courtesy that Eliason said he was never offered by Richard Pitino, when the current head coach stopped playing the fifth-year senior in the home stretch of this season.
The twist in Eliason’s career in two years was dramatic. On Feb. 26, 2013, he had played those emotional, very effective 14 minutes in the upset of Indiana. On Feb. 26, 2015, Eliason did not play at all in the Gophers’ upset victory at Michigan State.
He had missed one of the Gophers’ previous 86 games with an injury. Now, it was “DNP — coach’s decision” in the boxscore.
“It wasn’t a big surprise,” Eliason said. “I had played two minutes in the previous game against Wisconsin.”
What did Pitino say about this … two minutes vs. the Badgers and their 7-footer, Frank Kaminsky, and then none vs. Michigan State?
“There was no conversation,” Eliason said. “Maybe it wasn’t needed. He hadn’t played me much all year. I had 15 minutes once in the Big Ten, I think.”
Twice. Eliason played 15 and 17 minutes in the two games vs. Iowa. He didn’t take a shot in either of those games. He took 22 shots in the Gophers’ 20 Big Ten games (including the conference tournament), compared to 78 in 19 Big Ten games in his junior season.
When Mo Walker was in the game, the ball went inside. When Eliason was in the game, it did not.
There’s no doubt Walker was much more of a post presence than Eliason. There’s also no doubt that Pitino inherited an asset in Eliason, and in two seasons, turned him into a nothing contributor in a nothing season.
That’s me — putting this largely on Pitino, not Eliason doing so.
“He wanted Mo’s offense over rebounding and defense,” said Eliason, with a shrug.
Did Eliason buy Pitino’s theory that it was not feasible to play him and Walker at the same time?
“I think we could have played some together, but the coach didn’t,” Eliason said. “That’s all that matters.”
Presumably, Pitino’s reason for phasing out Eliason — 15 minutes in the final six games — was to get more time for 21-year-old freshmen Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou.
“Maybe,” Eliason said. “Nobody told me that.”
He shrugged again and said: “I’d still come to Minnesota. Great school, great teammates. Andre Hollins … can’t find a better person. I could go on.
“I tried to continue to be a leader in practice. [Assistants] Dan McHale, Ben Johnson, they thanked me for that. The last thing this team needed, with the way the Big Ten went, with all the close games we lost, would’ve been me as a senior moping around.”
In the end, Pitino determined that Eliason was close to the last player he needed on the court.
Reaching an opinion on the correctness of Pitino’s decision will be based on your view of how a player with value who has put five years into a basketball program deserves to be treated.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. email@example.com