Eliason grows into key role for Gophers

Center Elliott Eliason has developed into a force down low.

Jace Frederick

Elliott Eliason has always been big.

The same can’t be said about the 6-foot-11-inch center’s role with the Gophers men’s basketball team.

Until this season.

Through two years with the Gophers, the pinnacle of Eliason’s underwhelming career was a seven-point, five-rebound performance in a 77-73 upset win over then-No. 1 Indiana in February 2013.

His tenure as a backup big man was plagued with inconsistency — he reached double digits in rebounds just three times and in points only once.

But Eliason knew that this season, he’d be asked to serve as a staple on a frontcourt severely lacking depth and size.

“Ready or not, here it comes,” he said in October.

A barrage of questions swirled around whether Eliason was ready to take on such a role.

His pedigree certainly didn’t cement him into the position. His awkward movements didn’t reek of confidence, and he was being asked to transition into first-year head coach Richard Pitino’s new up-tempo system.

There were many — including some of his teammates — who doubted that Eliason was up to the task.

“When I first got here … he really wasn’t that good,” senior guard Malik Smith said.

Nearly two-thirds of the way through the season, that outlook has changed drastically.

Pitino said Eliason — who has posted six double-doubles in 19 games — is one of the most improved players in the conference, if not the entire country.

Building a body

Pitino questioned Eliason’s fitness on the “Gopher Road Trip Chalk Talk 2013” tour this summer.

He went as far as to say that the big man couldn’t play until he beat Pitino in a pushup contest — a belittling challenge to any athlete.

Eliason, who studied abroad with teammate Andre Hollins in Italy over the summer, admitted he didn’t come back from the trip ready to play.

“I was out of shape,” he said. “I wasn’t very strong. I wasn’t ready.”

He knew that if he was going to compete this season, that had to change — and fast.

When Eliason returned to Minnesota, he went to work with new strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown.

Eliason said the conditioning-focused offseason program worked better for him than programs he’d completed in the past.

Eliason was listed at 260 pounds on the roster last season. In this year’s edition, he’s down to 240.

“I think he’s in pretty good shape,” Pitino said. “You’d want [him] to get a little bit stronger, but he’s made significant strides.”

And about that pushup contest?

“I could kill him right now. It wouldn’t even be a match,” Eliason said. “We could do it right now. I’d run circles around him.”

Big effort

Eliason only knows one gear: full speed ahead.

In the past, he was always good for a spark off the bench.

And while his playing time has increased this season, he’s refused to allow it to dampen his energetic, enthusiastic demeanor on the court.

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

A mixture of enthusiasm, energy and effort appear to be the keys for Eliason‘s unwavering success on the glass.

In eight games this season, he’s swiped double-figure rebounds, including a career-high 17 in the season opener against Lehigh on Nov. 8. He’s averaging 8.7 rebounds per game.

Eliason said one of his goals heading into the season was to be one of the Big Ten’s top rebounders — he currently ranks second in the conference.

“I’m right there,” he said. “I’m sitting top five, and that’s where I want to be.”

Defensively, he’s been even better, averaging 2.6 blocks per game.

“Elliott’s the leader in the paint,” Smith said. “[He’s] our best rebounder [and] probably our best interior defender.”

It’s a rare occasion when Eliason is the most talented player on the court, but he’s still managed to win battles down low with national powers this season.

“He runs so hard, and he plays so hard,” Pitino said. “He’s one of those guys that, during the game, he gives you everything.”

Captain Eliason

Pitino said a key for the coaching staff this season was to get Eliason to bring his in-game effort to practice.

So far, so good.

Pitino said Eliason is one of the hardest-working players in practice on a daily basis, along with senior guard Austin Hollins.

“That’s kind of like his identity,” Hollins said. “He never takes a day off, and he’s really committed to getting better as a player. And it’s really showing.”

Eliason’s efforts sparked Pitino to name him a new captain before the Ohio State game.

“It actually meant a lot to me,” Eliason said. “I didn’t expect it, but it was gratifying.”

He now serves two roles on the U.S.S. Minnesota — a captain of the ship he anchors on the interior.

Smith said Eliason is more vocal than the team’s other captains, and his work ethic makes him easy to work with.

Eliason’s promotion provided yet another confidence boost, something he needed when he entered the season.

Pitino said when he first took the head coaching job, Eliason had a nervous breakdown every time he made a mistake.

But with each honor, each strong performance, each minute played without feeling winded, his confidence has evolved.

“I think [my confidence is] very high, but not overconfident — definitely not that,” he said. “It’s just about playing every game knowing you have the ability to compete against these guys.”

When speaking of Eliason’s recent performances, Gophers junior guard DeAndre Mathieu gave some lofty praise to his teammate.

“He’s turned into a monster,” Mathieu said. “I think he’s the best big in the Big Ten.”

While months ago that would have seemed like a preposterous statement, it now appears legitimate.

What was supposed to be a glaring weakness for the Gophers is now a strength. And the young man from Chadron, Neb., trying to fit into his big, clumsy body is now a strong, confident, beast down low, consistently turning out big performances.

And that means big things in Minnesota.