Sunday's game against Penn State signals the end of the Big Ten regular season and the final home game for several seniors. Elliott Eliason, Maurice Walker, Kendal Shell, and DeAndre Mathieu have all contributed important pieces to the Minnesota basketball world the last four (or in some cases five) years.
Eliason was a constant presence in the paint, who grew from a scrawny, awkward youth to a much more proportional defensive stopper before our eyes. Somewhere between transitioning from the 2014-2015 season to looking ahead towards next year he got lost in the rotation. But we are indebted to the five years he has given to the program.
Walker really had two different parts to his Gopher career. The injury riddled pre-transformation part and the Pitino-inspired, quality offensive post man, post-transformation part. Mo has really come into his own the last two years and given many memorable performances, especially this one against our hated rivals. Who knows if his knees had been more kind what he may have been able to do with a full career.
Shell is what he is. Originally a walk-on as a freshman, he has been the guy at the end of the bench, waving a towel and more than likely pushing the starters as hard as he can in practices. His exuberant enthusiasm may go unnoticed to some but the landscape of NCAA basketball, his role is often more important than the casual observer realizes. The team will miss Kendal's encouraging positive attitude.
Mathieu arrived on campus with our current head coach. He has often been viewed as a "transitional" player, a junior college transfer to hold down the fort until Coach Pitino can bring in his preferred style of player in his first full recruiting season. He has definitely sacrificed his body on innumerable occasions slashing to the basket among the trees. And we won't soon forget his quick hands and shuffling feet to spear head the pressing defense that will become a main stay for the coming years.
But there is one senior who has accumulated 137 games as a Minnesota Golden Gopher. One who has been firmly ensconced in the fabric of Minnesota basketball for four straight years. One who wears a big smile, even though there have been times where he didn't have reason to. And one who will go down in the Gopher record books as one of the most accomplished players this school has ever seen. Of course, that man is Andre Hollins.
Listen, I know I've written a fanpost that was a love letter to Andre Hollins. I know you're rolling your eyes now, wondering if I'm being paid by the European club team most interested in Hollins to hype his player profile. But Hollins has been so important in many moments that will go down in Gopher lore, he is impossible to ignore as some minor footnote. Here's a quick breakdown of things that have happened in his four seasons:
A promising squad that lost their best player, Trevor Mbakwe, to a season-ending knee injury struggling on the road and against superior opponents in conference play. But Hollins showed glimpses of being a go-to scoring during a brief stint in the Big Ten Tournament that was so impressive, he made the all-tournament team despite only playing in two games. This momentum continued into the NIT, where the Gophers made the final and Andre averaged 15 points a game throughout the tournament.
A team with sky-high expectations exploded out of the gates on the back of Andre's 41-point effort in the Bahamas against a ranked Memphis team. While the team would reach as high as 8 in the rankings, a lack luster finish to the regular season doomed them to the bubble. And while they were rescued by an elite strength of schedule and the selection committee's graces, Andre shone brightly on the sport's biggest stage, averaging 26.5 points on 55% shooting in two games.
As his first coach Tubby Smith was fired during the off-season, Andre was required to adjust on the fly as Richard Pitino took over the program. This transition wasn't as smooth as many had hoped or expected and Hollins' averages and efficiency took a small step backwards. While the team narrowly missed the NCAA Tournament field, Austin Hollins led them to NIT glory, taking the championship at Madison Square Garden.
With Pitino entering his second season and returning 4 starters, including a fully healthy Andre, expectations were definitely higher. But some bad breaks and an inability to win close games doomed the team to a season that seems likely to end with another NIT appearance. And that is where we find ourselves today.
With Senior Day approaching against the Penn State Nittany Lions, Hollins is closing out an accomplished career. Depending upon how things shake out in the coming weeks, he will rank either 4th, 3rd, or in some crazy scenarios, 2nd in scoring all-time at the University of Minnesota. While he wouldn't rank anywhere in the top ten in scoring average, this says something about his longevity and his place in the record books. Speaking of logevity, Andre has played the most career games as a Golden Gopher ever. Let that settle in for a moment. No one has donned the maroon and gold more times than Hollins.
And so what is the overall point of this post, you might ask? I just thought that a Gopher so accomplished as Andre Hollins deserved one last positive post before the season ends and the yearning for football season takes hold of Gopher Nation. I want to be able to remember this and these. And we don't need some in-depth statistical analysis to know that Andre can get red hot and score in bunches. And we know this team can hang with some of the higher echelon teams in the Big Ten this year, as displayed by beating the likes of Iowa and Michigan State on the road, and Purdue at home. And we know we won't have to face those pesking Badgers on our side of the bracket in the Big Ten Tournament. The biggest question is, does Andre have what it takes to go to Chicago and get crazy hot for 4 (possibly 5) straight days?
Andre Hollins will be listed in the Gopher record books for years to come. He'll rank first in season free-throw percentage (minimum 50 attempts) with 90.4% and career free-throw percentage (minimum 200 attempts) with 82.8%. He may go down as the second most prolific scoring in Gopher history with a few prolonged tournament runs (Big Ten and NIT). He was always working hard on the defensive end and has adjusted through a coaching change and several seasons where fans and the media have dubbed the team as "underachieving." Throughout all this, he has been a model student, citizen, and everything that we hope our student-athletes would be in representing our beloved university.
Can he lead the Gophers on a truly unexpected run through the Big Ten Tournament? In the 2010-2011 season, senior guard Talor Battle dragged Penn State kicking and screaming to the Big Ten Tournament Final after knocking off Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan State in three consecutive games on three consecutive days. While the Nittany Lions fell short in the final against Ohio State, it was a memorable run sparked by a single player elevating his entire team beyond what they were capable of. If the chips fall right, the draw is kind, and Pitino and company are ready, I think Andre Hollins can have a similar influence on this team that was so close in so many games but just unable to close the deal.
I find I'm so excited for the Big Ten Tournament, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it is the excitement only a blind Gopher optimist can feel, a blind Gopher optimist at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope Andre can make it across the border to Chicago. I hope to see my Gophers win on TV, and watch them shake Andre's hand. I hope the United Center is as maroon and gold as it has been in my dreams. I hope.