When Richard Pitino took over the men’s basketball program at Minnesota and dug into film of his returning players, one thing struck him about center Elliott Eliason.
“He was always hanging his head when he made a mistake,” the first-year coach said Monday. “It looked to be a bigger deal than it needed to be. He was just beating himself up mentally during the game.’’
Now, the 6-foot-11, 240-pound junior from Chadron, Neb., is more likely to force an opponent to cringe.
Eliason is second in the Big Ten in blocked shots at 2.7 per game and third in rebounding at 8.6 while adding 6.5 points a game on 50 percent shooting.
“He’s aggravating to play against,’’ ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes said during Minnesota’s 75-67 loss to No. 2 Syracuse. Eliason had six points, nine rebounds and five blocks despite being limited by foul trouble.
Michigan State found him similarly annoying last Saturday when the Gophers (13-4, 2-2) took the No. 4 Spartans to overtime in East Lansing before falling 87-75. Eliason had seven points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.
“I like him,’’ MSU coach Tom Izzo said Monday. “I think he’s made great progress. Like all big men, each year as you get more experienced, you make progress.
“He’s a cornerstone for that program right now because he’s solid, doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, sets pretty good picks, rebounds pretty well and defends pretty well.’’
If you think Eliason would look good in a Nebraska lineup that is starved for big-man play, it’s not like the Huskers didn’t try.
Eliason held a scholarship offer from former coach Doc Sadler for 15 months before saying no. Current NU coach Tim Miles had Eliason on a campus visit while at Colorado State, but he told the Rams no, too.
It’s hard to argue with Eliason’s decision, now having played for one coach who won a national title (Tubby Smith while at Kentucky) and another who has been in a Final Four (Pitino as an assistant at Louisville).
Eliason, who started 11 games as a freshman and 13 as a sophomore, has 16 starts in 17 games this season. He opened the year with 11 points and a career-high 17 rebounds against Lehigh. That was the first of five double-doubles. He also has blocked at least four shots in a game six times.
Pitino said Eliason wasn’t in the best of condition when the new staff arrived, but worked hard to catch up.
“He has done a good job of transforming his body,” Pitino said. “He’s playing with a great motor. He’s always done that. He’s working hard every single day to impact games. The next step for him has got to be demanding the ball in the paint and, when we throw it to him, making something happen.”
The way Eliason can do that is to keep his head up, not down.
“He has done a much better job of not letting things affect his game,” Pitino said. “He is playing so much more confident because of that.’