Gophers seek inside-out attack

Richard Pitino is trying to establish a stronger post presence this year.

by Jack Satzinger

When Minnesota hired Richard Pitino as head coach in April 2013, the Gophers’ post players were nothing to write home about.

Elliott Eliason was an uncoordinated backup center who often tripped while running down the court. He was coming off a season in which he averaged 2.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game.

Mo Walker weighed more than 300 pounds and had barely played the year before.

With unheralded post players in the fold, Minnesota’s game plan for much of last season focused on using its talented perimeter players: Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu.

But after Eliason proved to be a strong pick-and-roll partner and Walker became one of the team’s best scorers, Minnesota is focusing on establishing more of an inside-out offensive attack in Pitino’s second year with the Gophers.

“I thought we started throwing it inside a lot more toward the end of the year, and our offensive numbers went up,” Pitino said. “We’ve got to establish that.”

Differing styles

Eliason and Walker call themselves good friends, but the two had contrasting upbringings. Walker grew up just outside of Toronto, one of Canada’s largest cities. Eliason hails from rural Chadron, Neb.

Their basketball games contrast each other, too.

Walker averaged 7.8 points per game last season, good for fourth on the team. He scored a team-high 18 points in an 81-68 victory over No. 9 Wisconsin in January.

Walker flashed a more diverse set of post moves as Big Ten play progressed, becoming Minnesota’s go-to scorer on the low block.

“Mo is kind of a pure low-post scorer,” Pitino said. “He’s got left hand, right hand. All the moves.”

While Walker racked up the points, Eliason led the Gophers by far in rebounding with 6.6 per game. He also more than doubled Walker’s blocks per game at 1.9.

But Eliason also closed out his season with 19 consecutive games of single-digit scoring.

“He’s more on the defensive end, and I’m more on the offensive end, but we’re both working on our flaws,” said Walker, who averaged only 4.5 rebounds per game last season.

Walker gets most of his buckets by posting up in the paint, but Eliason thrives at cutting to the basket on the pick and roll.

“We run a lot of what we call pick-and-roll motion. Any time a [center] sets a ball screen, his opportunity is to roll to the basket, so we’ve got to look at him,” Pitino said.

Finding a starter

Eliason started 35 games last season compared to Walker’s three. But pinpointing who will be Minnesota’s starting center hasn’t been easy.

Eliason’s defense will be key when the Gophers face Associated Press preseason All-Americans Montrezl Harrell of Louisville and Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky this season.

But Walker’s ability to score down low and apply pressure on those two players while they’re playing defense is also important.

Walker and Eliason have talked about their roles coming into the season and are adamant they don’t care which player starts.

“I don’t think it matters to either of us,” Eliason said. “There were games last year where Mo played spectacular. There were games where I had a good game. We’re not jealous of each other; we’re not mad about it. … It’s the truth.”

Pitino said Minnesota’s offense looks completely different depending on which center is on the court. But no matter who Minnesota’s man in the middle is, expect the Gophers’ offense to feature a more inside-out approach this season.

“I think they’re [both] going to play starter minutes,” Pitino said. “They complement each other very well. … If you morphed them together, you’d have a really, really good big man.”