MINNEAPOLIS — Sunday’s regular-season finale will likely have a different meaning for the three seniors on the Gophers men’s basketball team.
Malik Smith’s senior year was his one and only season at Minnesota after transferring from Florida International. While he’s had plenty of good moments during the season as a sharpshooter, his Gophers career was a brief one.
Guard Maverick Ahanmisi describes his time at Minnesota as a roller coaster. The California native has seen his minutes diminish during the last three years and hasn’t played much during the Big Ten season, a fact that head coach Richard Pitino wishes were different.
And then there’s Austin Hollins, who will tie a school record on Sunday when he steps onto the Williams Arena court one last time. Minnesota’s regular-season finale will mark Hollins’ 134th appearance of his career, matching him with former teammate Rodney Williams for the most games in Gophers history. It’s a testament to Hollins’ consistency since the 6-foot-4 guard first set foot on campus four years ago.
"When guys do that, that means that they’ve been somewhat of an impact player as a freshman, which is huge," said Pitino, the Gophers’ first-year head coach. "Austin was thrown in there. He’s a 1,000-point scorer. He’s been to two tournaments. He’s got an opportunity to go to a third. So he’s had a great career."
As a freshman under Tubby Smith, Hollins averaged 17.0 minutes per game and contributed 4.5 points and 1.5 rebounds — numbers that have done nothing but increase throughout his four years.
Entering Sunday’s season finale against Penn State, Hollins is averaging 11.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 32.7 minutes per game, all of which are career highs. While he’s always been one of Minnesota’s better defensive players, Hollins’ offensive game has progressed throughout his career.
"I’ve gotten better, I think, in every aspect of my game," Hollins said. "My confidence has gone up, as well. I think each year I’ve gotten a little bit better. I’ve worked extremely hard in the offseason and during the season. It really pays off."
Hollins has also developed into a senior leader, both on and off the court. The Germantown, Tenn., native is typically one of the last players off the floor during practice and has earned constant praise from Pitino for his work ethic. Hollins might not be the most vocal in games, but he’s become the lead-by-example type for Minnesota.
The leadership qualities Hollins has shown led to Pitino calling him a "coach’s dream."
"Even when he was going through his slump, he was so positive," Pitino said. "He wasn’t feeling sorry for himself. Sometimes when guys go through these slumps, they mope around a little bit. He’s not like that at all. It’s all about the team. That’s great to see. It’s rare."
Indeed, Hollins hit a cold spell midway through the season, scoring in single digits five times in an eight-game stretch. But he’s found his groove again at the right time. He scored a career-high 27 points in Minnesota’s win against No. 20 Iowa late last month and followed that up with a 16-point effort in a loss at Michigan last week.
The Gophers will need Hollins to continue producing an offensive spark as they prepare for the Big Ten tournament with the hope of earning a spot in the NCAA tournament.
"We’re not running any different plays. It’s not like he’s getting up extra shots; he always does that," Pitino said. "I think it’s just confidence. . . . What else can I say, shoot it in the basket? He knows. He knows what to do. He just needs some confidence."
Pitino’s team could use a confidence boost heading into the conference tournament next week, and a win against Penn State would do just that. The Gophers are currently a bubble team for the NCAA tournament despite one of the best strength of schedules in the nation.
It might take at least one win in the Big Ten tournament to really bolster Minnesota’s resume, and the Gophers certainly can’t afford a loss to the Nittany Lions. Pitino said his players insist to him that they’re not paying attention to up-to-the-minute tournament projections that fluctuate on a daily basis as to whether or not Minnesota is a tournament team.
Hollins and his fellow seniors stand by the fact that they’re not trying to worry about that. But there’s no doubt they want to end their Gophers careers with one last trip to the Big Dance.
"It’d mean a lot," Hollins said. "But like Coach said, we try to stay focused on what’s in front of us. We have Penn State tomorrow and the Big Ten tournament after that. That’s really our focus right now, to go and try to win five games straight."