Like a friend who builds up too much hype before disappointing you with a terrible joke, it’s seemingly been that way for Gopher fans who have eagerly waited through the off-season to see Mo Walker make his season debut.
Aside from the buzz of a new head coach, the other big story of the off-season was Walker’s dramatic weight loss — rumored to have been more than 60 pounds.
Finally, we were going to see the former three-star Canadian recruit make an impact for the Gophers, but lo and behold, Walker gets suspended for six games to start the season for violating an undisclosed university policy. Everybody makes mistakes, especially in college (trust me, it’s more prevalent than you think), and there should be no ill will towards him for it. But the fact is that his team needs him, and they need him badly.
Next Monday, the Gophers will be in Hawaii to face the ninth ranked Syracuse Orange in the Maui Invitational on national television but Walker will not be eligible to play. Chances are that he’ll make the trip to Hawaii with the team as he sits out his final game with possible playing time in the second round against either Arkansas or California, but the challenge of guarding Syracuse’s big men will mostly reside with fellow Gopher big man Elliott Eliason, who has stepped up in Walker’s absence so far this season.
On Tuesday night against Coastal Carolina, Eliason had the duty of guarding 6-foot-10 center El Hadji Ndieguene. Eliason played more than 30 minutes against Ndieguene and looked to struggle against the Senegal native in the front-court. The senior Ndieguene had scored in double digits only five other games in his college career, but managed to do so for a sixth time against a Big Ten opponent, converting 4-of-6 attempts for 10 points while also adding seven rebounds.
The front-court was already an area of concern heading into the season, especially following the departure of Trevor Mbakwe and the NCAA waiver-denial of Rakeem Buckles. But losing Walker heading into the Maui Invitational against a big time opponent tilts the advantage to the Orange, who have a slew of big men who can score and rebound.
While the Gophers are strong at the guard position, Syracuse is strong at forward. The Orange’s leading scorer, senior forward C.J. Fair, is a match up nightmare for Minnesota at 6-foot-8 with the ability to drive to the basket from the baseline and dunk over a defender. He could very likely go in the first round next year in the NBA Draft.
The 6-foot-8 sophomore power forward Jerami Grant is also a player to watch out for next Monday. The son of a former NBA player, Grant is having a solid second year, averaging 11.7 points per game along with eight rebounds in three games this season.
With Walker out and Joey King questionable heading into an x-ray on Wednesday to evaluate an injury to his jaw following a collision with Andre Hollins against Coastal Carolina, head coach Richard Pitino could be thin in the front-court with only Eliason and Oto Osenieks to pick up the Orange forwards on defense. Redshirt freshman Charles Buggs is another option for Pitino, but he’s only played six minutes all season.
It’s too bad Walker isn’t eligible to play, but it’s most unfortunate the depth chart is shrinking heading into Hawaii with the whole country as witness to the new-look Gophers.