Walker’s emergence helps offense evolve

Mo Walker has led the Gophers in the frontcourt over the last five games.

Minnesota forward Mo Walker protects the ball against Concordia-St. Paul at Williams Arena, on Nov. 4, 2013.

Lisa Persson, Daily File Photo

Minnesota forward Mo Walker protects the ball against Concordia-St. Paul at Williams Arena, on Nov. 4, 2013.

Jace Frederick

The Gophers needed an interior offensive presence, and Mo Walker needed a significant role.

But the match seemed to fit as perfectly as peanut butter and ketchup. Walker had lost 60 pounds in the offseason and showed glimpses of offensive production, but he hadn’t done it on a consistent basis — not even close.

Walker’s early college career certainly didn’t
suggest that stardom was on the way. He’d played two seasons, one cut short by an injured knee, the other plagued by the fact that he was overweight.

But in the past five games, the 6-foot-10-inch Canadian big man flipped the switch. He looks the part of an unstoppable force on the inside, a consistent option Minnesota has starved for all season.

Walker has paced his team with 14.2 points per game during that five-game stretch.

“I think Mo is settling in to be one of the tougher guys to guard on the block in this conference,” head coach Richard Pitino said. “He’s just so big and wide. He’s got great confidence right now.”

The ultimatum

Pitino has stressed his up-and-down style of basketball from the day he took the helm of the Gophers basketball program.

At the time, an up-tempo scheme didn’t seem possible for Walker, who had ballooned to 310 pounds.

No man that big was playing for Pitino.

“I don’t think Mo Walker could play in any system on that weight,” Pitino said.

So the Gophers head coach gave the junior center an ultimatum.

“I just said, ‘If you don’t lose weight, you’re not going to play,’” Pitino said. “It’s that simple.”

Sixty pounds later, Walker had secured a spot in the rotation. He’d given himself a shot.

“The typical American couldn’t do that in a lifetime,” Gophers strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown said. “His commitment level was, and is, very, very, very high.”

But as Pitino pointed out, he still had a way to go.

“Weight loss is one thing; conditioning is another,” Brown said.

The turning point

The beginning of the 2013-14 campaign seemed to derail all of the momentum Walker had built heading into the regular season.

He lost all that weight and appeared to be on the verge of a breakout year after his 17-point, 13-rebound performance in the Gophers’ exhibition finale against Concordia-St. Paul.

But mere hours before the regular-season opener Nov. 8, Walker was suspended for six games for a violation of University policy.

The Gophers went 5-1 in that six-game stretch, but they showed some definite deficiencies down low. They were outmuscled on the interior, particularly when junior center Elliott Eliason had to come out of the game. There was no good option there to back him up.

“It was a wake-up call to me,” Walker said. “I saw the team struggle with me out. It was hard on me. I really wanted to contribute, so I did whatever I needed to do to come back better.”

Walker said that during his suspension, he put in extra workouts to improve his conditioning.

Now his work is paying dividends.

He played a career-high 32 minutes in the Gophers’ triple-overtime loss in Purdue last Wednesday. And just three days later against Indiana, he delivered again, scoring 14 points and grabbing eight boards in 26 minutes.

“In the past couple of years … I was only out there for a few minutes at a time,” Walker said. “Now, coach keeps me out there a little longer, and I feel good out there. I don’t tire too quickly. I catch my wind back pretty quickly. If there’s a free throw or a dead ball, I’m fresh again.”

 

A two-headed monster

The Gophers came into the season with both Eliason and Walker — two junior centers — anchoring the squad down low.

And while Eliason is the starter, Pitino has repeatedly said he doesn’t see much of a difference between the two.

A month ago, that seemed silly.

There was a visible difference between Eliason, who had established himself as one of the top centers in the Big Ten, and Walker, who wasn’t seeing much of the court.

That gap has shrunk considerably because of Walker’s improvements, which are partially linked to the everyday competition between him and Eliason.

“We’re trying to be competitive in everything when we play each other,” Eliason said. “We know every time we challenge each other, we’re making each other better.”

In practice, Walker had to become more assertive on the offensive end to take on a shot-blocker like Eliason.

“He’s better at low-post scoring — that’s just a fact,” Eliason said.

Walker can outscore Eliason. Eliason can out-defend Walker. One man’s strengths are the other’s weaknesses. Pitino calls the duo a two-headed monster.

“If you could just put Elliott and Mo together, they’d be a phenomenal player,” Pitino said. “What we’ve got to do now is they’ve got to push each other to get better.”

That’s been an ongoing process — one that’s helped Walker improve.

“I try to learn off of Elliott.” Walker said. “I try to be better in the sense that he is.”

An evolving offense

The Gophers’ four leading scorers are all guards.

And for much of the season, the stat sheet was a perfect representation of Minnesota’s offense — great guard scoring and a great big question mark down low.

That was a problem in the Big Ten, where coaches are constantly adjusting to take away a team’s primary strengths.

So Pitino and his staff turned to Walker to try to change it.

“Every day in practice, coach is telling me to be aggressive down low,” he said. “Look to score because we need that low-post presence, and I’ve taken that on.”

It’s a burden he’s bore well of late. Walker has led the team in scoring in three of its past five games.

The strictly perimeter offense is no more. The Gophers have made a point to throw the ball down to their offensive force in the paint.

“Our offense has evolved to more of a low-post threat,” Pitino said. “[Walker] gives us great confidence. We’re looking for him more.”

And with Walker’s recent success, Gophers fans can expect to see plenty more of him on the court — even if there’s less of him to be seen.