Big men look to improve rebounding

The Gophers' big men have struggled with rebounding in the first two games.

Minnesota center Elliott Eliason looks for a pass Tuesday at Williams Arena.

Bridget Bennett

Minnesota center Elliott Eliason looks for a pass Tuesday at Williams Arena.

Jack Satzinger

Richard Pitino has high hopes for his redshirt senior big men.

Before the season, he said eight rebounds per game was a realistic average for Elliott Eliason. On Tuesday, he said he thinks Mo Walker is going to be one of the Big Ten’s best low-post threats this season.

But two games into the season, Eliason, Walker and the rest of the Gophers’ big men have struggled to rebound.

“It was tough to rebound out there, but it’s still something [I’ve] got to work on,” Walker said after Minnesota’s 76-54 victory over Western Kentucky on Tuesday night.

Walker recorded a team-high 14 points in the game, but he only came away with two rebounds. Eliason and starting power forward Joey King came away with four boards apiece.

Meanwhile, 5-foot-9-inch point guard DeAndre Mathieu and 6-foot-1-inch combo guard Nate Mason led the team with five rebounds each.

The same thing happened last week during Minnesota’s loss to Louisville in Puerto Rico. Mason out-rebounded Walker, Eliason and King — Minnesota’s primary big men.

Mason admitted it’s a bit weird to be the team’s leading rebounder as a guard.

“I’m trying to be out there doing the best I can do,” he said.

He’s been surprisingly productive and a solid contributor off the bench this season. The Georgia native has scored 10 points in each of Minnesota’s games and has showcased an ability to play pressure defense better than almost anyone else on the team.

Mason said he has learned a lot from playing alongside Mathieu, especially what it takes to consistently compete each day. After Tuesday’s victory, Mathieu said Mason doesn’t play like a freshman.

“I told y’all Nate was game-ready early. He’s just shown it,” Mathieu said. “He’s not a freshman in his mind.”

Mason has been successful early in the season in almost every facet of the game, including rebounding.

But rebounding isn’t what Mason is on the floor to do. Grabbing boards is usually a job reserved for players 10 inches taller than him.

The Gophers made a conscious effort to feed Walker the ball inside for scoring opportunities Tuesday night, considering their size advantage over Western Kentucky.

“With our size compared to them, they were pretty thin at [center]. It was really important to us,” King said.

The Gophers outscored the Hilltoppers in the paint 36-16. But for some reason, that size advantage didn’t translate to more rebounds.

Though Walker, Eliason and company’s lack of boards early in the season may be a statistical outlier in a small sample size, Pitino said he wants them to rebound the ball better.

“There’s no reason why Mo can’t be one of the top low-post threats in our conference. Besides [Wisconsin’s Frank] Kaminsky, I don’t know who the next-best low-post threat is,” Pitino said. “He’s got to really separate himself rebounding the basketball.”