After rough junior season, Hollins is back

Andre Hollins fought through a rough junior season at Minnesota.

Jack Satzinger

Minnesota’s locker room was electric.

After the Gophers upset then-No. 9 Wisconsin last January, reporters weaved throughout Williams Arena’s underbelly as joyous shouts echoed from the facility’s showers.

Some athletes sat in front of their lockers ready to take questions, but in the center of the jubilation was Andre Hollins, hunched over crutches to keep weight off his left ankle.

After knocking down a shot on the first possession of the game, Hollins landed on Badgers guard Josh Gasser’s foot.

“I didn’t know what was happening,” Hollins said. “Normally with an ankle sprain, I tweak it and can get back up and strap my laces on tighter and get through it. But this one, I couldn’t do it.”

Minnesota defeated Wisconsin 81-68 that night. But the victory came without Hollins’ help — prior to that game, he had been the face of the program.

Hollins fought through the injury as the season wore on, but he played without being completely effective.

Now, entering his senior season at Minnesota, he’s 100 percent healthy and ready to be one of the Big Ten’s best guards once again.

“This year, we expect him to have a big-time season,” head coach Richard Pitino said. “There’s no reason why he can’t lead this team and put himself and our team in position to have a lot of success.”

Shrugging it off

After suffering what was diagnosed as a severe ankle injury, Hollins sat out just two games last season.

Minnesota fell in the first game at Nebraska. The second contest was a one-point loss to Northwestern, which left some players unsuccessfully holding back tears.

Hollins couldn’t stand watching any longer.

He suited up for the next game at Purdue, despite an uncomfortably swollen ankle.

Hollins grinded out 36 minutes, but he shot just 21 percent from the floor in a triple-overtime loss.

“He rushed back versus Purdue, and we were only going to play him a little bit, and then we go into triple overtime,” Pitino said. “His ankle really was hurting, and he showed a lot of guts.”

He tried shrugging off the injury and being his normal self on and off the court. Hollins smiled in postgame press conferences, hiding the team’s losses and his ankle pain.

But those close to him could tell something was wrong.

“I think he tried to play it off like everything was fine, but we all — I mean, I guess I knew because I know him — it definitely affected him,” said Rachel Banham, a senior guard on the women’s basketball team and Hollins’ girlfriend.

“I could definitely tell it was bugging him.”

Hollins said the injury impacted his psyche more than anything.

“It was frustrating,” he said. “… When you get injured, you have to overcome it mentally.”

Limited mobility

When Banham asked Hollins how his ankle felt after practices, she usually got the same melancholy response.

“Mostly he would say like, ‘I can’t get up. I don’t have the same bounce,’” she said.

Hollins’ limited mobility affected just about every part of his game.

He couldn’t finish at the rim with the same burst, slide well defensively or elevate to shoot — and in the past, shooting had always been his calling card.

Hollins scored 41 points in a game against Memphis in his sophomore year. Later that season, he shined in a 28-point performance in the first round of the NCAA tournament against UCLA.

In the final game of his sophomore season, Hollins nailed six 3-pointers as the Gophers lost to a talented Florida team.

When DeAndre Mathieu came to Minnesota the next year, the Gophers slid Hollins from point guard to shooting guard to maximize his scoring opportunities.

“We all believe, as good as Andre is with the ball, he’s a good scorer,” assistant coach Ben Johnson said this summer. “So it’s nice to be able to slide him off the ball and let him score and get open.”

But with Mathieu running the offense, a hobbled Hollins couldn’t move well enough to get open. And when he did get the ball, the results didn’t meet the lofty expectations Hollins set during his stellar sophomore year.

Hollins attempted fewer 3-pointers per contest and made just 34.9 percent of them after hitting 41.8 percent the season before, and his assist numbers dropped. Also, his field-goal percentage fell to the worst clip of his collegiate career.

Hollins’ block and steal rates dropped, too. But one statistic went up: minutes played.

“[The injury] impacted a lot — not as explosive, muscle memory. It’s different, slower,” Hollins said. “I think I kind of adjusted a little bit, just not as much as I wanted to.”

Finishing strong

Hollins expects to emerge from the Gophers’ locker room for their home opener next month without crutches, without limited mobility and with a peace of mind.

“He looks really good,” Pitino said. “He’s had a great preseason, and I expect him to have a very good year.”

But he won’t be the same player.

As Hollins regained his health at the beginning of the summer, he focused on a part of his game that was once considered a weakness: defense.

“That’s a big improvement for him. He’s always been a great player, always been a great offensive player, a great shooter,” said teammate Mo Walker, adding that Hollins has improved defensively more than anyone else on the roster this offseason.

Minnesota’s backcourt of Mathieu and Hollins should force turnovers at higher rates than last season, spurring fast breaks and creating havoc on the court — something Pitino advertised when athletics director Norwood Teague announced him as head coach in 2013.

Andre Hollins is back.

And he’s a more complete player than ever before.

“I know how important defense is. I’ve put more of an effort in on being better defensively,” Hollins said. “It was hard to move, but I fought through it. It makes you stronger as a person and as a player.”