As Hollins eases back in, Mo Walker leads 'evolving' Gophers offense
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MINNEAPOLIS - Center Maurice Walker lost 50 pounds since last season, but he's playing bigger than he ever has in a Gophers uniform.
As scoring leader Andre Hollins plays through an ankle injury, Walker, center Elliott Eliason and guard DeAndre Mathieu have become the focal point of Minnesota's offense - and that was never more evident than in the Gophers' bruising 66-60 win over Indiana on Saturday.
The Gophers were outrebounded on the offensive and defensive glass, yet held a 40-26 advantage scoring in the paint as they overcame another underwhelming night from their otherwise dynamic guard duo of Andre and Austin Hollins.
"Mo [Walker], I thought he was really good offensively. But I thought Elliott [Eliason] was great defensively as well. I thought, that was that kind of two-headed monster that we wanted," Pitino said postgame. "Since the Wisconsin game [on Jan. 22], our offense has evolved to more of a low-post threat. [Walker] gives us great confidence, we're looking for him more."
Mathieu's layup to put the Gophers up 64-60 with 12 seconds left ultimately sent the game out of reach for Indiana.
"The most impressive thing about DeAndre Mathieu, he misses the shot vs. Northwestern, he misses the shot vs. Purdue and he comes back with the fearlessness and hits a huge shot basically to win the game," Pitino said.
In three straight losses since Andre Hollins went down, the Gophers' offensive philosophy has changed - and the changes finally proved fruitful on Saturday.
Walker, who averages just 15 minutes and seven points per game this season, led the Gophers in scoring in three of the five games since Hollins' injury - and finished second on the team with 14 points against the Hoosiers. Eliason and Walker split minutes in the first half, but Pitino rode with Walker in the second half as he played 15 of his 26 minutes in the final period.
"It's in the gameplan," Eliason said. "Mo's been having so much success down there. We just like that action, inside-out action, gets our guards open more as well as scoring inside."
Andre Hollins returned to the lineup in the loss at Purdue on Feb. 5, but Walker still averages 10 shots per game as Pitino eases his junior guard back from what he called a severe ankle injury.
Senior guard Austin Hollins continued his shooting slump as he shot 2-for-9 on the night and combined with Andre to shoot just 6-of-17 from the floor, including 2-of-7 from beyond the arc against Indiana.
That's where Walker comes in to fill the offensive void - 90 pounds lighter than when he walked onto Minnesota's campus for the first time as a 340-pound big man in 2010.
"I'm pretty confident in myself and my abilities," Walker said. "I'd say just my comfort on the court, I like my style of offense now, my body, my body weight."
Pitino, whose father, Rick, and brother Ryan were watching from behind the Gophers' bench, echoed the necessity for a big man to not only fill the void Trevor Mbakwe left after last season, but the immediate scoring threat that he's not getting from his perimeter play right now.
"Especially with no Andre Hollins healthy enough just yet, we need to go inside. We're too easy to guard with Andre not 100 percent. You look at Joey King, he's starting to get great confidence as well," Pitino said.
The Gophers have yet to win back-to-back Big Ten games since early January and will travel to Madison on Thursday.
"We've lost two close ones, they hurt. It's like a weight is off you, a monkey off your back. Now we have to stay focused and get back in the hunt," Eliason said.