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Each time Minnesota center Maurice Walker runs into a friend he hasn't seen in a few weeks on campus these days, their reaction is always the same.
"Every day, somebody stops me and says, 'You look really good' or 'You've lost so much weight,'" Walker said. "It just shows my hard work is paying off."
Walker has shed 50 pounds the past few months, dropping from a hefty 310 pounds at the end of the 2012-13 season to a more svelte 260 at his last weigh-in on Monday. The 6-foot-10 redshirt junior credits his slimmer appearance to a combination of rigorous conditioning workouts and cutting the carbs, snacks, soda and fruit juice out of his diet.
What forced Walker's lifestyle change was the firing of Tubby Smith and the subsequent hire of Richard Pitino. Groomed in the up-tempo, pressing system favored by his father and Billy Donovan, Pitino told Walker the only way he'd ever have a substantial role at Minnesota would be to shed enough weight to be able to thrive at that pace.
Though Pitino would still like Walker to slim down a few more pounds and improve his strength and explosiveness before the start of the season, the Minnesota coach admits the weight Walker has lost has already made a huge difference. Walker was tugging on his shorts and gasping for air after 10 or 15 minutes during the first workout Pitino's staff put him through, but he lasted 45 minutes Monday and finished the final drill as strong as anyone on the roster.
"I'm really proud of him for being so self-motivated," Pitino said. "People think we've had this big, long strategic plan and we've had to be on him every single day, but it was really simple. I just told him he wasn't going to play unless he lost a lot of weight, and that was really it. He's done the rest."
If the coaching change was one impetus for Walker's transformation, the other is that he finally has an opportunity to carve out significant playing time.
No longer is Trevor Mbakwe entrenched as Minnesota's starting center the way he had been throughout Walker's career prior to this season. Now Richard Pitino is counting on either Walker or fellow redshirt junior Elliott Eliason to take over for Mbakwe and anchor the paint for a Minnesota team with plenty of quality guards but a dearth of proven frontcourt pieces.
That opportunity to play is one reason Walker didn't consider a transfer when Pitino was hired even if the new coach's style of play wasn't an ideal fit. The other reason was Walker enjoys his friends and teammates at Minnesota and feared he wouldn't be so comfortable if he went elsewhere.
"I didn't want to leave my teammates and friends, I have family out here and I knew in the long run that losing weight was only going to help me," Walker said. "It was worth the sacrifice for me to stick it out."
Walker is never going to be an explosive athlete or a shot-blocking menace no matter how much weight he sheds, but he has the skills to be an asset to Minnesota if he can get up and down the court for more than a handful of possessions without getting fatigued.
He scores effectively with his back to the basket, sets excellent screens and is by far the team's best passer from the high or low post. He's also much more confident in himself now that he's approaching his target weight of 250 pounds.
It's easy for Pitino to forget how far Walker has come in such a short time since they see each other so often, but the coach got a reminder recently as he was walking through the halls of Williams Arena.
"They have all the team pictures up from previous teams, and I just laughed," Pitino said. "He looks like a totally different person."
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