Column: Eliason’s the Gophers’ most important player, ya feel me?

Samuel Gordon

It’s early in the season, but in Minnesota’s first real test of the season against No. 8 Syracuse, it became pretty obvious that it ain’t easy without the Big Easy on the floor.

Gophers junior center Elliott Eliason is the X-factor on this year’s squad, and his play will have a tremendous bearing on how Minnesota finishes in the Big Ten.

In the offseason, Eliason morphed from a finesse big man into a son of a gun down low. That transformation was as crucial as any development that took place in the offseason.

The Gophers put up a hell of a fight against the Orange, but they’re not the same team offensively or defensively without Eliason on the floor.

He’s a disruptive force defensively — the rim protector that every team needs. And his passing from the high post is something opposing defenses will focus on moving forward.

Eliason was forced to ride the pine during a crucial stretch in the second half after he got into foul trouble. That allowed Syracuse to build a lead it never relinquished.

Syracuse star forward C.J. Fair immediately started looking for his shot with Eliason sitting and scored six straight points.

Eliason is one of just two true post players on the Gophers this season, and if this team is going to compete in the Big Ten, he’s going play a key role in its success.

“He’s aggravating to play against,” former college basketball coach and ESPN color commentator Jimmy Dykes said during the broadcast of the Gophers-Syracuse game.

And for basketball purists, he’s entertaining to watch.

Eliason did all the little things Monday, finishing with six points, nine rebounds, two assists and five blocks.

Gophers junior center Mo Walker completed his six-game suspension by sitting out against Syracuse, and he’ll add some much-needed beef to the Gophers’ frontcourt.

Pitino will have the rest of the nonconference schedule to tinker with his lineups and figure out how to effectively use Minnesota’s twin towers in time for the Big Ten schedule.

Aside from Eliason, another guy for Gophers fans to keep an eye on this year is Malik Smith.

The Florida International transfer hit a pair of absolute bombs from three-point range to help Minnesota close the gap.

Pitino has praised the slumping senior guard and said he’s capable of catching fire from beyond the arc — something he did Monday.

Smith finished the game with 16 points on 5-for-8 shooting. He played the crunch-time minutes and looked like the legitimate scorer off the bench Minnesota has lacked for years.

Smith’s production is a luxury. Eliason’s is a necessity.

Ya feel me?