Austin Hollins eager to help Gophers overachieve in 2013-14

MINNEAPOLIS — Andre Hollins got most of the attention last year for the Gophers men’s basketball team. This year, the other Hollins is ready to turn some heads.

That other Hollins would be Austin, a 6-foot-4 senior guard who has done nothing but improve every year since arriving in Dinkytown from Germantown, Tenn. Austin Hollins was Minnesota’s second-leading scorer last year behind Andre Hollins — no relation; the duo has made that clear over the last two seasons. Now Austin Hollins enters his senior season as a captain and a team leader.

Last year was a big one for Hollins and his progression, but the 2013-14 season could be even bigger.

“I think the sky’s the limit,” first-year Gophers coach Richard Pitino said of Hollins. “He just keeps getting better. I said it the other day, he’s a consummate pro. That’s the way he approaches this game. I think he’s going to be very good for us.”

As a junior last year, Hollins averaged 10.7 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.7 steals per game, all of which were career highs. His minutes increased from his sophomore to junior year, yet his turnovers decreased. As a lockdown perimeter defender, Hollins was often tasked with shutting down the opposing team’s top scoring threat.

At practices, Hollins is often the last one to leave the court, staying late to work on his jump shot until the court beneath him is drenched in sweat. Though soft-spoken, he already emerged as a lead-by-example type of player during his junior campaign. When asked about his individual potential as a senior, the team-first Hollins deflects the question to his team.

“We’ve been working extremely hard in the offseason,” said Hollins, whose father Lionel is a former NBA coach. “As a team, we’re just trying to go out there and just do the best that we can, go farther than we did last year. That’s our goal.”

Last year, of course, the Gophers earned an NCAA tournament berth and beat UCLA in the first round. Hollins was instrumental in that win, scoring 16 points while adding four steals and a career-high seven assists to pace Minnesota to a 20-point win over the Bruins.

The Gophers lost their next game in the tournament by a 78-64 final to Florida, with Hollins scoring 10 points for Minnesota. That loss still stings Hollins and the rest of his teammates, who aren’t predicted to make the same type of postseason noise that they did a year ago. Losing seniors Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams to graduation means that college basketball experts don’t see the Gophers as a threat in the Big Ten.

Hollins isn’t paying any attention to what the outsiders are saying about Minnesota’s program.

“I think we can be great. We’ve just got to keep working,” he said Monday at the team’s media day. “We’ve worked extremely hard to get to this point where we are. We’ve got to keep working. Where publications have put us is out of our hands. We have a lot of new guys. We lost three of our starters, so we don’t deserve to be rated highly. We just have to go out there and use it as motivation and play hard.”

Pitino has raved about Hollins since taking the job this offseason, loving the work ethic that Hollins brings to the court. The 31-year-old head coach has maintained a blog on the team’s official website and critiqued each player individually after their intrasquad scrimmage earlier this month. The only downside he saw in Hollins’ play that night were the two turnovers he committed.

Otherwise, Pitino liked what he saw — a senior who defends well, can shoot from downtown and can be an anchor for the Gophers during this transition year.

“He’s a really good player. I think from top to bottom, he doesn’t have a whole lot of weaknesses,” Pitino said. “What I love about him, he shows up to work every single day, has a great attitude, plays hard every single day. He’s a great leader. I think he’s going to be a really good player.”

Pitino may not see many weaknesses, but Hollins is his own harshest critic and can point out the flaws. He put in time this offseason to improve his craft, noting that his ball handling needs improvement. Hollins added that he’s striving to be a consistent player day in and day out.

As far as consistency goes, the Gophers would be hard-pressed to find a player who gave the same consistent effort through the season last year more than Austin Hollins.

“(He’ll) take an even bigger step forward,” said Andre Hollins. “It’s his last year. He’s going to leave it all out there, even more so because it’s his last year. He’s been doing that ever since his freshman year. It’s great to see the progression.”

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