MINNEAPOLIS — As Austin Hollins goes, so go the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Hollins has become a senior leader on Minnesota both on and off the court — albeit a quieter, lead-by-example type. He’s also become a go-to scoring option and is second on the team in points per game. When Hollins has an off night, the Gophers seem to follow suit, and vice versa.
Such was the case last week when Minnesota dropped its Big Ten opener to visiting Michigan in a game the Gophers probably should have won. It didn’t help that Hollins had a poor shooting night against the Wolverines. He was just 1-for-9 from the field and finished with a season-low two points.
At this stage in his college career, Hollins isn’t likely to post back-to-back games like that. He proved that Sunday when he led Minnesota with 18 points to help fend off Purdue, 82-79.
"We’re not going to be a good team without Austin being a great scoring option for us," said fellow senior Malik Smith. "We just told him to keep his confidence after the first game, and he came out firing (Sunday)."
Some of Hollins’ lowest-scoring games last year happened to come in Minnesota losses, too. He was held to six points in a road loss at Northwestern as the Gophers fell 55-48. One game later, Hollins scored just two points in a 45-44 loss to Wisconsin at the Kohl Center in Madison.
Later in the year at Nebraska, Hollins did not score a single point and was 0-for-5 from the floor. The result: a 53-51 loss for the Gophers.
Hollins has developed into a more consistent scorer during his final year on campus, and playing in first-year coach Richard Pitino’s system has helped. Perhaps more than any other player, Hollins has been the benefactor of the up-tempo offense the Gophers now run. He routinely beats opposing teams down the court on the fast break, often finishing with slam dunks. The result of all of this has been a career-best 13.0 points per game, up from the 10.7 points he scored per game as a junior last year.
Minnesota does have other scoring threats on the roster. Andre Hollins leads Minnesota with 15.9 points per game, while DeAndre Mathieu (11.3 ppg) and Smith (9.9) contribute offensively on a nightly basis as well. But as the last two games have illustrated, the Gophers need that offensive contribution from Austin Hollins.
"He’s a captain. He’s such a big part of this team," said center Elliott Eliason. "It’s awesome to see him get into a rhythm, especially when we’re about ready to have a big road trip. We need that leadership from him. When he’s shooting well, I have great confidence that we’re going to be a really tough team to beat."
Hollins just couldn’t get in sync against Michigan, especially from downtown. He took six shots from behind the arc and missed all six. He still impacted the game in other ways, grabbing four steals, a block and four rebounds. The baskets, though, just wouldn’t fall.
The difference for Hollins a few days later was shot selection.
"I think I was taking a lot better shots this game, and that really helped me," he said after the win over Purdue. "That first shot went down and it really helped me get into a rhythm."
Taking better shots led to Hollins going 4-for-8 from beyond the 3-point line and 6-for-14 from the field en route to his team-high 18 points. Hollins splashed a 3-pointer to open the scoring from Minnesota and helped lift the Gophers to a seven-point halftime lead.
Pitino agreed with Hollins’ assessment that the shots he took Sunday against Purdue were much better than the ones he put up against Michigan.
"I think a lot of it, honestly, was he was taking shots we don’t practice," Pitino said of Hollins’ two-point game against Michigan. "There were a couple of shots where he just wasn’t taking great shots. It wasn’t like it was his form. It wasn’t his mechanics. He took great shots (Sunday). He didn’t play well one game. He’s played really, really well for about 14 games this season."
Hollins has scored double-digits in all but two of the Gophers’ 15 games so far this year leading into Thursday’s contest at Penn State. His other single-digit output was a nine-point performance in a win against Chaminade in the Maui Invitational. He’s also scored 15 or more points six times, with Minnesota winning five of those games.
A big offensive night from Hollins doesn’t necessarily guarantee a win for the Gophers, nor does an off night from the senior captain mean Minnesota will lose. But one thing has become clear: this team is much better when Hollins is a big contributor on offense.
"That’s key. That’s where our points come from, because we know what we’re going to get from him on the defensive end," said Andre Hollins. "You know that offense is a spark."