MINNEAPOLIS — Andre Hollins couldn’t believe his eyes.
Before the Gophers point guard left to study in Italy for a month, he noticed teammate Mo Walker was losing a few pounds. The transformation was most noticeable in Walker’s face, Hollins said.
When Hollins returned to Minnesota after his time abroad, Walker was a whole new person, having lost nearly 50 pounds.
“When I got back, I was like, ‘Oh my God,'”Hollins said. “I was like, ‘What have you been doing?’ He lost, what, 50 pounds? It’s crazy. It’s unbelievable, and it’s just a testament to how hard he’s working.”
Walker really had no choice but to shed the excess weight if he hoped to play college basketball this season. New Gophers coach Richard Pitino employs a fast-paced style that means his players are up and down the court at a much higher rate than they were under former coach Tubby Smith, which was more of a half-court offense that allowed Walker to play at his old weight.
Pitino gave the 310-pound Walker an ultimatum: lose weight, or he’d be on the bench.
“I just said if you don’t lose weight, you’re not going to play. It’s just that simple,” Pitino said. “I didn’t put a pound number on, because I didn’t know what it would be, but he just needed to turn that fat into muscle, and he’s done it. …
“I don’t think Mo Walker could play in any system at that weight. It doesn’t matter if it’s my system or anybody else’s.”
The weight loss hasn’t been easy for Walker, who now checks in at 265 pounds. It took plenty of changes to his diet; he tries to avoid carbohydrates and has cut down on the snacking and sodas. Of course, there have also been the rigorous workouts — a combination of conditioning drills and weight lifting — as he’s strived to lose the pounds and turn the fat into muscle.
Despite the drastic change, Walker still isn’t satisfied. He wants to drop another 15 pounds and play at 250 pounds. He said he hasn’t been his current size since around eighth grade.
Now that those 50 pounds are gone, Walker can tell it makes a difference on the court — especially in Pitino’s fast-paced system.
“I feel a lot better going up and down the court,” Walker said. “My wind is a little better. I’m jumping a little better. I feel like it just affects my overall game, like rebounding, pick and roll, defense, all the things that Coach really stresses.”
The weight loss is certainly noticeable just by looking at Walker, who appears to be an entirely different person. At a practice Tuesday, his teammates raved about the new and improved Walker.
“Oh, man. I think it’s great for Mo,” said Austin Hollins when asked about the slimmed-down Walker. “We’re really proud of him. He’s been working extremely hard. He’s lost a ton of weight. It’s going to help not only himself but it’s going to help the team as well.”
Walker’s role was very limited as a sophomore last year on Smith’s team, one year after he redshirted due to knee surgery. The 6-foot-10 forward averaged just 2.2 points and 2.0 rebounds per game, but also averaged only 6.6 minutes a contest off the bench.
He’s hoping to see that role increase during his junior year. As of now, the Gophers have just two post players over 6-foot-8 — Walker and 6-foot-11 junior Elliott Eliason. Since Minnesota has had just a handful of practices with Pitino this summer, Walker and the rest of the players are trying to figure out their roles in Pitino’s system.
“He just wants everybody to play hard,” Walker said. “As a big, we play a lot of pick and roll offense, so I see myself setting a lot of screens and rolling, getting a few touches inside, offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding, just making good passes for my teammates when they’re open.”
When Walker finally does take the court for the 2013-14 season, many Gophers fans may not recognize the svelte forward. Andre Hollins barely recognized Walker when returning home from Italy, and at times Walker has to do a double take when he sees himself.
“The first few weeks people were telling me I looked pretty good. I didn’t see it,” Walker said. “But after maybe the fourth or fifth week, I started seeing the results and started looking at myself a little more in the mirror. …
“I knew I was overweight, but I kind of just lived with it and played with it comfortably. Ever since I’ve been changing my body, it’s been a big benefit to me.”