Walker’s return strengthens thin frontcourt

Gophers center Mo Walker sat out the first six games due to a suspension.

Junior forward Maurice Walker makes a shot during the home game against Cardinal Stritch University on Friday, Nov. 1, 2013.

Daily File Photo, Amanda Snyder

Junior forward Maurice Walker makes a shot during the home game against Cardinal Stritch University on Friday, Nov. 1, 2013.

Jace Frederick

Elliott Eliason came in like a wrecking ball in the Gophers’ matchup with No. 8 Syracuse on Nov. 25. He recorded six points, nine rebounds and five blocks in the opening round of the Maui Invitational.

When Eliason sat out with foul trouble, Minnesota had no answer for the Orange’s big men down low.

 Gophers head coach Richard Pitino was forced to play forwards Oto Osenieks and Joey King at center, but both were undersized and overmatched as Syracuse wore down Minnesota’s front line en route to a 75-67 victory.

And all 6-foot-10-inch junior center Mo Walker could do was watch from the bench.

Walker was in street clothes as he served the final game of his six-game suspension for a violation of University policy.

“I know the Syracuse game ate him up,” senior guard Malik Smith said. “Because he knew he could have helped us out.”

Walker was suspended just before the Gophers’ regular-season opener against Lehigh on Nov. 8. The suspension came on the heels of Walker’s 17-point, 13-rebound effort in a 101-67 win over Concordia-St. Paul in Minnesota’s exhibition finale.

The big man lost 60 pounds in the offseason and was in much better shape physically at the start of the season.

“He was disappointed,” Pitino said. “He’s a prideful kid and a good kid [who] knows he made a mistake.”

Walker said it was tough to deal with the suspension right away and his first practice after it was given did not go well.

But he said he had great support from his teammates, coaches, family and friends.

Smith said players texted Walker after they found out about the suspension.

“We’re all a family here,” Smith said.

Walker said coaches put him through extra workouts to keep his conditioning up during the suspension. He also used some extra time to do individual drills.

Walker said he tried to help his team however he could in practice and from the bench during games.

“That’s what I put all my time, energy and effort into,” he said.

Walker’s return to the lineup in the Gophers’ second game of the Maui Invitational against Arkansas was much anticipated, but it didn’t amount to much.

He finished with just one point and one rebound in 11 minutes as Minnesota fell 87-73 to the Razorbacks.

Walker said Pitino told him before the game that he’d probably be rusty and shouldn’t let it get to him.

“He was pretty much spot-on,” Walker said. “I felt pretty rusty. I was pretty disappointed with my performance.”

Walker shook some of that rust in the Gophers’ 83-68 victory over Chaminade the next game. He had 10 points and seven rebounds in 16 minutes.

“Mo’s just got to continue to get in great shape, but he’s going to help us. There’s no doubt about that,” Pitino said. “In a thin frontcourt, we needed him.”

Walker said he still feels in sync with the team because he’s been able to practice with them, but he said he’s still lacking in-game experience.

That should improve as each game passes and he continues to accumulate minutes on the floor.

He’ll keep knocking off the rust Tuesday as the Gophers take on a lengthy Florida State squad at Williams Arena.

“It’s going to be a good test, I think — a pretty big one, too,” he said.

Walker said he’s excited to be back on the floor and to help his teammates. His presence is a welcome addition to a thin and relatively small Gophers front line.

“He’s fought back pretty hard for us,” Smith said. “We’re just happy to have him back. He’s a hard worker, a big body, and we need him.”