LINCOLN — Life was good last March for Minnesota basketball's Elliott Eliason.
The Gophers got into the NCAA tournament and defeated UCLA in their first game. The 6-foot-11, 250-pound center from Chadron, Neb., played 19 minutes, contributing six points and five rebounds.
A loss to Florida two days later ended the season, but not the internal optimism.
“We had already started talking to the coaches about what to do in the offseason,” Eliason said Friday by phone from Minneapolis.
A day later, life flipped upside down.
Minnesota fired head coach Tubby Smith, citing a 46-62 Big Ten record, no conference finish higher than sixth in six seasons and growing fan unrest.
“That was a pretty down time,” Eliason said. “For the next three weeks, we were up in the air. There were so many rumors. And we lost a couple of guys who transferred.”
Did you think about leaving?
“Yeah, I did,” said Eliason, who picked UM over Nebraska and others. “I think everybody did. But I really enjoy being up here, and I just couldn't think about sitting out a whole year without playing basketball. So I was here to stay.”
Now, under new coach Richard Pitino, life is better than ever for Eliason entering Sunday's game between Minnesota (15-5, 4-3) and Nebraska (9-9, 1-5).
Eliason has six double-doubles and has started all but one game for a team that has turned into a Big Ten darling after being picked in preseason to finish near the league's bottom. He's third in the Big Ten in rebounding (8.5) and second in blocked shots (51) while scoring 7.9 points a game in conference games.
Nebraska coach Tim Miles, who tried to recruit Eliason to Colorado State, is well aware of his impact.
“I'm not just sucking up to him because he's a Nebraska kid,” Miles said. “His development and his ability to protect the rim is outstanding. He is one of the best post defenders in our conference, no doubt about it.”
If you can feel someone blush over the phone, that was Eliason's reaction.
“That's very flattering, and I have a lot of respect for Coach Miles,” he said. “My goal coming into the year was to be the best post defender. To hear comments like that means I'm doing what I set out to do.”
Eliason's work during the offseason to reshape his body and remake his game, plus his in-game work, has earned him more high praise in the form of being named a co-captain.
“The coaches pulled me into the offices one afternoon before practice and informed me of that,” he said. “I was really honored and surprised. It was very gratifying.”
Eliason's part in the retooling of Minnesota basketball under Pitino also has been meaningful.
“He asks a lot out of you,” Eliason said. “But he's always honest with you — good, bad or whatever. It makes you a better player when you know what the standard is and you're held to it.”
Pitino, in studying game tapes when he arrived, noticed Eliason often hung his head after a mistake.
“He was just beating himself up mentally during the game,” the coach said. “Now, he's doing a much better job of not letting things affect his game. He's playing with much more confidence.”
For that, Eliason is thankful.
“Coach Pitino lit a fire under me,” he said. “It's been really fun to play for him. He made our returning guys better, and he brought in some guys who weren't maybe the most highly recruited but who can really play.”
Minnesota, coming off an 81-68 win over No. 9 Wisconsin, is poised to make a move toward the Top 25 this week with another win Sunday.
Eliason, though, remembers how the Gophers followed up their first win over a ranked team (Ohio State) with a 21-point loss at Iowa.
“We went to Iowa and kind of lost our way and lost our heads,” he said. “Hopefully that was a tough lesson learned. We have to stay true to who we were before the success.”
Nebraska showed Thursday it didn't know how to handle beating a ranked team, either. The Huskers followed a win over No. 17 Ohio State with a 58-54 loss to last-place Penn State.
“You would like to attribute it to growing pains,” Miles said. “But it has been the same old story with this team.”
Turnovers, shaky shot selection and interior defense continue to plague the Huskers.
“Now,” Miles said, “we've got a one-day prep for the most difficult and unique prep in the league.”