Eliason ready to fill big man role for Minnesota

Elliott Eliason had 11 points and 17 boards in a season-opening victory.

Minnesota center Elliott Eliason reaches for the ball Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, at Williams Arena.

Daily File Photo, Emily Dunker

Minnesota center Elliott Eliason reaches for the ball Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, at Williams Arena.

by Jace Frederick

Elliott Eliason knew his role on the team would expand this season — it had to.

Eliason was the only big man returning to the Gophers who had played substantial minutes last season after forwards Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe graduated.

And when the team announced junior center Mo Walker’s six-game suspension before Friday’s regular-season opener, Eliason’s role stepped up another notch.

So did his performance.

Eliason scored 11 points and added a career-best 17 rebounds in the Gophers’ 81-62 win over Lehigh. It was Eliason’s first double-double in college.

“He’s been playing really well. He works extremely hard, plays extremely hard every day,” Gophers head coach Richard Pitino said after Friday’s win. “He’s carrying us right now.”

The rebounding production is a welcome addition to a relatively small Gophers roster. Eliason pulled down nearly 45 percent of Minnesota’s boards Friday.

“It’s just a mindset, I think, with him,” junior guard Andre Hollins said. “He went after it. He knew it was our weakness.”

Eliason said he felt a little untested heading into the season. He played a large role in the Gophers’ upset win over top-ranked Indiana last season but didn’t consistently produce at a high level during the season.

He started only 24 of the 71 games he played and averaged just 14.4 minutes per game through his first two seasons.

Those numbers were destined to spike when Williams and Mbakwe left town. Eliason is now a focal point on the front line.

“Ready or not, here it comes,” he said of the added pressure.

Eliason said he’s in his peak shape this season, and he said he thinks Gophers strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown is one of the best in the nation.

Eliason provided a spark off the bench last year and said he hopes to continue bringing the same energy this season in extended minutes.

“If I can’t bring that enthusiasm all the time, I probably won’t want to be playing anymore,” he said. “I think that’s just part of my personality.”

The Gophers will need an extra lift with Walker out.

“Mo’s a loss,” Pitino said. “Every guy on the team is going to have to do a little bit to keep up.”

As the team’s only other option at center, Eliason will have to do a lot.

Playing against the zone

Pitino said he expects Montana, the Gophers’ opponent Tuesday, to play zone defense 50 percent of the time in an attempt to slow the Gophers’ up-tempo offense.

That could be a problem for the Gophers, who have looked stagnant against zones in recent years.

Pitino and his staff have placed an emphasis on combating the defense.

Junior guard DeAndre Mathieu said the best way to attack the zone is in transition.

“That’s always the first look,” he said.