MINNEAPOLIS -- There have been a few surprises in the first 15 games of the Gophers' maiden voyage under Richard Pitino.
Elliott Eliason is proving to be an energetic and effective post player. DeAndre Mathieu - all 5-foot-9 (ahem) of him - has the guts of a burglar and gives the Gophers a point guard who doesn't have to score to be successful. Malik Smith has one of the purest outside shots we've seen around these parts in years.
But more than all of that, if the first two Big Ten games of the season taught us anything, they provided confirmation of a storyline most observers strongly suspected would be the case back in October.
The Gophers will only go as far as Austin and Andre Hollins take them.
In the Big Ten opener, Minnesota's top two scorers combined for 14 points on 4-for-19 shooting, including a dismal 1-for-11 from 3-point range.
Three days later, we saw the other side of that coin. In Sunday's 82-79 win over Purdue, the Hollinses were back to form, and the Gophers needed every bit of offense and stability they provide an otherwise inexperienced lineup.
Austin Hollins scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds, hitting 4 of 8 from beyond the arc and generally making a nuisance of himself all over the court for Purdue's wing players. Meanwhile, Andre Hollins scored 17 points, shooting 50 percent from the floor and hitting 9 of 11 free throws to keep the Gophers' offense rolling while the three officials seemed determined to drag the pace of the game back to the 1930s.
Minnesota led by as many as 19 points early in the second half before a furious rally brought the Boilermakers back to within three points with 4 seconds to play. Smith - the team's best free-throw shooter at 89 percent entering the game - missed a pair from the line, but Kendall Stephens' desperation heave came up short at the buzzer to send Pitino home with his first Big Ten victory.
"Certainly we made a couple of mistakes at the end of the game, communication errors," Pitino said. "Some guys were in man, some guys were in zone. We should have pulled the ball out one time, took a 3 when we were up seven. But in the end we did win.
"We've got to remember," he added, "that for about 80 percent of that game we played great defense, we rebounded the basketball, we were really efficient offensively."
Minnesota (12-3 overall, 1-1 in the Big Ten) shot 52.2 percent from the field and hit on 11 of 24 3-pointers (45.8 percent) for the game, a stark contrast from the shooting performance against Michigan (39.6 percent from the field, 26.3 percent from 3-point range).
Much of that improvement was due to the play of Minnesota's two big scorers. When Andre and Austin Hollins are on, the Gophers will be tough to beat. When they're not, the chances of winning decrease exponentially. Austin Hollins said he's been around long enough to know how to keep one bad game from turning into a major funk.
"I know the grind of the Big Ten season and I know how long it is. I know how tough it is," he said. "I know what it's like being in that situation that if you dwell on a loss it can turn into two losses or three losses. I think the guys did a good job of not letting that get to them and being ready to play for tonight."
Meanwhile, Andre Hollins did what his coach has been asking him to focus on throughout the season - take the ball to the basket and make the defense pay at the free-throw line.
"I was just being aggressive like I normally have been," he said. "They were giving it to me. Plus Purdue, they're a defensive team. They're a tough, hard-nosed team. That's what they come in with. They didn't care. The new rules, they said they're not going to change the way they're playing, so that's why I just took advantage of it."
After a nip-and-tuck first half that ended with the Gophers holding a seven-point lead, the second half began with a flourish from both of the Hollinses. First Austin drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key, his fourth of the game. The next time down the court, the shock clock was ticking down when Andre got his hands on the ball, squared to the hoop and sank a 15-footer.
On Minnesota's next possession, Austin brought down the house with the play of the game. Taking the ball in transition on the right wing, he pump-faked a Purdue defender into the third row at the 3-point line, then drove to the basket for an authoritative slam dunk that put the Gophers up 49-39 with 17 minutes to play.
"I wanted to shoot it," Austin Hollins said of the play. "I had just made a 3 a possession or two before that. I was open on the wing, I saw (the defender) coming out and there was nobody in the help defense really, so I just pump-faked and he went for it. It was a wide-open lane. I wasn't expecting it to be so wide-open but it was, and thank goodness it was."
The Boilermakers ended up making it a game, thanks in large part to 21 offensive rebounds that led to 28 second-chance points, including 16 in the second half as the deficit shrunk. But after the game, Pitino said he was focused on the many positives that he's learned about his team after its first two conference games.
"We've shown that we can be a really good team if we execute the right way," he said. "I would hope - and it's early, but I would hope that we would always give great effort the way we did in the first two games."