Eliason growing comfortable in backing up Mbakwe

Reserve center Elliott Eliason is third on the Gophers in blocks and fourth in rebounds.

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

Emily Dunker

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

Andrew Krammer

Trevor Mbakwe picked up his third foul five minutes into the second half with the Gophers trailing then-No. 1 Indiana by eight points Feb. 26.

The Gophers’ faithful had just witnessed Mbakwe score four of Minnesota’s six second-half points, and with the sixth-year senior headed to the bench, the Gophers’ chances looked to be slipping away.

Elliott Eliason wasn’t going to let that happen.

The sophomore replaced Mbakwe off the bench and scored seven of Minnesota’s next 10 points to help tie the game at 46-46 with 11 minutes remaining.

“[Mbakwe] is a super senior now — he’s been here a while,” Eliason said. “It’s tough to replace that physicality, but I do the best I can.”

Eliason, a Chadron, Neb., native, will return to his home state Wednesday for the Gophers game against Nebraska. He said 24 family members will be in attendance.

A two-time Nebraska Player of the Year in high school, Eliason is averaging fewer points and rebounds than he did last season as a freshman when he started multiple games with Mbakwe out  due to injury.

“It’s a different way to get into your flow,” Eliason said of his reserve role. “When you come off the bench, you have to be right into it because you don’t have much time.”

Eliason has grown comfortable with assisting Mbakwe when the sixth-year senior gets into foul trouble or is winded.

Eliason played a key role in the Gophers’ win against Indiana — one of the biggest in program history — when he scored a Big Ten career-high seven points in 14 minutes.

“It just adds a sense of security,” Eliason said of his contributions. “We know we can keep going when Trevor’s not in the game.”

Filling in for Mbakwe, the Big Ten’s leading rebounder, is a big task. But Eliason has utilized his limited minutes in efficient fashion.

The sophomore is third on the team in blocked shots and fourth in rebounding despite playing 13.7 minutes per game.

Eliason’s attributes complement Mbakwe well.

Mbakwe is undersized as a big man at 6 feet 8 inches, while Eliason is more of a natural center at 6 feet 11 inches.

The Gophers could use a mixture of the two big men against Brandon Ubel, the Huskers’ only reliable inside presence. Ubel had 13 points on 6-for-7 shooting in a Jan. 29 loss at Minnesota.

Ubel often gets into foul trouble — a problem the Gophers don’t have often thanks to the Mbakwe-Eliason tandem.

“Foul trouble happens,” Eliason said. “We don’t need to worry about that, and Trevor can keep playing aggressive like he does.”

Turnovers are an Achilles’ heel for the Gophers, but Eliason has one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios among Minnesota’s big men, thanks in part to his unique passing ability.

“After our terrible two-game stretch against Iowa and Ohio State, we started incorporating basic ball handling into our practices,” Smith said.

It’s paid off. The Gophers combined to commit 41 turnovers in those two games. They’ve committed 20 in the two games since.

Minnesota had one of its best ball-handling nights in its 84-65 victory against Nebraska on Jan. 29, committing just six turnovers.

“We’re going [to Nebraska] expecting to win and expecting to play one of our better games,” coach Tubby Smith said.

Smith said he is considering starting the same lineup he did Saturday against Penn State: seniors Mbakwe, Rodney Williams, Julian Welch and Andre Ingram along with junior Austin Hollins.