Gophers’ Eliason quickly proves faith in naming him captain
MINNEAPOLIS — Elliott Eliason was genuinely shocked when Gophers head coach Richard Pitino named him a team captain before to Minnesota’s win over Ohio State on Thursday. His disbelief isn’t surprising, given his unassuming and sometimes self-deprecating nature.
Pitino talked earlier this year about Eliason’s confidence — or lack thereof — in himself. So despite turning into arguably the most improved player on the Gophers, Eliason had to pinch himself when he joined Austin Hollins, Andre Hollins and Maverick Ahanmisi as the team’s fourth captain earlier this week.
"I was a little bit surprised, to be quite honest, but I was all smiles. I was so happy," Eliason said following Thursday’s 63-53 win over the 11th-ranked Buckeyes. "It actually meant a lot to me, to have coach Pitino come in and give me that honor. I didn’t expect it, but it’s gratifying."
In his first game as a captain, Eliason certainly played like one. He dominated Ohio State in the post, scoring 12 points while grabbing a game-high 13 rebounds to help lead the Gophers to an upset win at Williams Arena. Eliason scored in a variety of ways, including an 18-foot jumper from the top of the key that surprised Buckeyes head coach Thad Matta.
Eliason has been a defensive presence down low all year for the Gophers, and that didn’t change in Thursday’s win. He had a pair of blocks and held Ohio State center Amir Williams to just three points in 22 minutes.
"Elliott Eliason obviously impacted the game in so many ways," Pitino said Thursday. "He was huge for us. We finally started to go inside and it was big for our basketball program."
Following Eliason’s big performance, his teammates had plenty of good things to say about him. Whether their words were hyperbole or not, it’s clear that the Gophers center has earned the respect of the rest of the team.
"He’s turned into a monster — he’s really good," said Minnesota point guard DeAndre Mathieu. "I think he’s the best big in the Big Ten."
Gophers junior Andre Hollins took his praise of Eliason one step further.
"Elliott’s confidence is up," Hollins said. "He’s one of the best big men in the nation."
Coming into the season, the biggest perceived weakness of Minnesota’s roster was the frontcourt. The Gophers returned guards Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins, two of their better players from last year, and seemed to have more depth in the backcourt with the transfers of guards Malik Smith and Mathieu. But with the loss of forward Trevor Mbakwe to graduation, as well as forward Rodney Williams, the skill level seemed destined for a drop-off during the 2013-14 season.
Thanks to Eliason’s emergence at center, as well as a slimmed down and much-improved Mo Walker, Minnesota’s big men have presented little cause for concern. While Eliason led the charge, Walker was effective in limited playing Thursday, scoring five points and grabbing a pair of rebounds in just six minutes.
"It wasn’t just me. Mo made some huge plays down there — finished a three-point play, made some big rebounds, got a big steal," Eliason said. "So that’s got to make everybody think really positive about our interior play, how it’s developed through the season."
Through the Gophers’ first 18 games, Eliason is now averaging 6.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.7 blocks, all of which are easily the best of his career at Minnesota. He’s second in the Big Ten in rebounding and also ranks second in blocked shots per game. His 2.9 offensive rebounds per game are tied for the most in the conference.
There are a number of factors for the Gophers’ impressive 14-4 start in Pitino’s first season. Mathieu has been a spark at point guard, Smith has developed as a threat from downtown, and the Hollinses have been solid for the majority of the year.
But there’s no denying the impact that Eliason’s improvement has had for Minnesota. The Chadron, Neb., native has gone from an uncoordinated freshman to a team captain as a junior, and his confidence continues to grow with each impressive performance.
"He certainly is rising to the occasion and rebounding at an extremely high level," Pitino said. "He’s playing with great confidence. Confidence is so big in this game, and he is certainly showing that when you play with that type of confidence, he feels he can play with anybody."
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