MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota will be without leading scorer Andre Hollins for a while.
The good news for the Gophers is they’ve already figured out how to win without him.
Coach Richard Pitino said Saturday the junior shooting guard’s sprained left ankle was more severe than anticipated, so Hollins won’t play Sunday at Nebraska. Pitino also said the assumption is Hollins will miss at least the game next Saturday against Northwestern, too.
“I’m sure if you asked him he’d say he’ll be back sooner than later,” Pitino told reporters before the team left for Lincoln. “But you’ve got to be smart with it. It was a really, really bad injury.”
Malik Smith will start in place of Hollins, who is averaging 15.5 points per game. His only previous absence was his freshman year, when a sprained right ankle kept him out one game against Saint Peter’s.
Hollins was hurt on the first possession of the game last Wednesday against No. 9 Wisconsin, but the Gophers still went on to win 81-68, with major contributions from DeAndre Mathieu, Austin Hollins and backup Mo Walker.
“You never want to see a great player like Andre Hollins go down with an injury. We hope for him to get better,” Badgers standout Sam Dekker said after the game. “But that kind of took them out of the outside shot and forced them to get stuff in the paint, and it worked for them.”
Starting center Elliott Eliason had trouble getting in a groove, so Walker played a career-high 24 minutes. He produced 18 points and nine rebounds, also career bests.
“I knew we needed some kind of energy and scoring off the bench,” Walker said. “I just tried to go out there and play aggressive. They were kind of undersized, so I took advantage of that.”
For now, the Gophers ought to be able to continue rely on their low-post game. Neither Nebraska nor Northwestern have formidable frontcourts. Minnesota plays at Purdue Feb. 5 and against Indiana Feb. 8; both of those opponents have better big men. Then after that is the rematch at Wisconsin Feb. 13.
If Eliason or Walker, or both of them, are contributing offensively and defensively around the basket, the Gophers (15-5, 4-3) have the potential to finish in the top tier of the Big Ten. This was assumed to be a perimeter-based team, running the fast break, collecting steals and firing 3-pointers, but despite losing standouts Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams from last season the Gophers have proven they can play in the post, too.
Walker, a junior who lost more than 60 pounds over the spring and summer, has the highest ceiling.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to get him to do: play aggressive every time,” Hollins said. “After the game I was just like, ‘That’s it. That’s exactly what I’m talking about.’ He came in and dominated. There’s not many people that can guard him when he’s being aggressive like that.”
The Gophers still must navigate their way through the thick of the conference schedule, so an NCAA tournament spot is far from guaranteed despite wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin and competitive losses to Syracuse, Michigan and Michigan State, teams ranked second, third and 21st in this week’s Associated Press poll. They also have a defeat to No. 10 Iowa.
There’s a confidence, though, the players have exhibited on the court that was often missing in recent seasons. Smith and fellow transfer DeAndre Mathieu have brought a fresh attitude — fearlessness is the way Pitino recently described it — and Eliason, Walker and Oto Osenieks particularly have returned with minds and bodies in far better shape.
“That confidence, it just rubs off on everybody,” Pitino said.
Now the key is to couch that with enough hunger and humility to avoid the letdown losses to lesser opponents.
“He’ll make sure this time that our egos don’t get too big and we don’t go in with a big head and don’t take Nebraska lightly,” Mathieu said.
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