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Hollins shows leadership on defense, off the court

Guard Austin Hollins is quietly making a difference on a Gophers team full of star players.

As a kid, Austin Hollins told his parents he was going to play basketball on TV one day.

The 21-year-old has already surpassed his youthful ambitions.

Undefeated Minnesota will host winless Tennessee State on Thursday, and while the game won’t be televised, Hollins will take the court as a co-captain with senior Rodney Williams.

“It’s a great honor,” Hollins said of his captaincy. “It’s something I worked hard for, and I’ll be good for the position.”

As co-captain, the Gophers’ best defender and one of their best shooters, Hollins has collected many roles as part of a Big Ten basketball program.

But Lionel Hollins, father of four and head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, said he never did anything different with his youngest son.

“It’s not like what we did with [Austin] was special,” Lionel Hollins said. “We did what we did with the rest of our kids.”

Raised in a humble home in Germantown, Tenn., Hollins has been a difference maker for the Gophers.

“You don’t get many guys like [Austin],” Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith said. “I’ve been in the business a long time. He’s a special kid.”

Hollins’ attributes extend off the basketball court. Smith has called him the team’s best “all-around” player as far as academics, behavior and performance.

Smith even requested Hollins to accompany him to speak at an on-campus charity event Tuesday.

“I told Austin, ‘You’re going to be a great spokesman for the team,’” Smith said.

It almost didn’t happen.

Three years ago, Hollins was mulling over an offer from Memphis — a school in his home state of Tennessee.

But after a visit to Minnesota, Hollins said he was impressed with the coaching staff and campus.

“It was one of those situations where I knew it would be my best fit,” Hollins said.

Fast starts

The Gophers have implemented a new-look, pressure defense this season, and Hollins is the enforcer.

Smith and Hollins will face their toughest offensive test yet Thursday against a Tennessee State program that Smith said bolsters professional-level talent.  

Robert Covington, a 6-foot-9-inch, 215-pound senior, averaged 18 points and eight rebounds for the Tigers last year.

Smith is still undecided on who will guard him.

“We’ll probably throw a lot of people on him because he’s that good,” Smith said.

At tipoff, Smith said it could be sophomore Joe Coleman or Williams, depending on where Covington starts.

Coleman has a team-high 10 turnovers this season and was torched for 18 points by Toledo’s Rian Pearson on Monday.

“Not a concern,” Smith said of Coleman’s defense. “He has a lot of pride. He’ll step up.”

The team’s best defender, Hollins, has already stepped up.

He’s sparked Minnesota to 15-0 and 12-0 runs out of the gate in games against American and Toledo.

In the two stretches — which total about 10 minutes — Hollins is responsible for 15 points, two steals and an assist.

He looks at home in Smith’s new defense. The 6-foot-4-inch, 185-pound guard hasn’t wasted any time showing he’s the top defensive dog.

Hollins stole the ball from American’s Stephen Lumpkins just a minute and 19 seconds into the Gophers’ season opener Friday.

Like déjà vu, Hollins snagged it from Toledo’s Julius Brown a little more than a minute into Monday’s game, turning both steals into quick buckets for Minnesota.

“It’s a demoralizing play to steal the ball and attack in transition,” Smith said. “It’s gotten [Hollins] off to a quick start.”

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