A multitude of reporters spilled onto the Williams Arena floor Wednesday afternoon. As Gophers men's basketball coach Tubby Smith approached, two cameramen pushed and shoved each other to secure a good angle.
Smith, familiar with the kind of frenzy that follows controversy such as the Monday arrest of junior forward Trevor Mbakwe, scoffed at the unusually large media gathering the day before his team faces eighth-ranked Purdue.
"Must be an important game here tomorrow. Got a big crowd out here. Welcome," a not-so-happy Smith said.
But instead of discussing the significance of the pending matchup against the Boilermakers, players and coaches answered questions about another off-court distraction.
Mbakwe, who Smith said will not start against the Boilermakers, apologized for the latest incident. He sent a Facebook message to a 22-year-old woman Sunday. The woman, an ex-girlfriend, called police, who arrested Mbakwe on Monday for allegedly violating a harassment restraining order she'd requested two years ago.
Smith and athletic director Joel Maturi opted against suspending Mbakwe, who missed the entire 2009-10 season because of a felony assault charge in Miami. He never pleaded guilty to the April 2009 incident, but he entered a pretrial intervention program to resolve the case.
"I'd just like to say I'd like to apologize to my teammates and my family and all of Gopher Nation for my poor judgment," said Mbakwe, the Gophers' co-scoring leader with Blake Hoffarber (13.4 points per game) and the Big Ten's top rebounder (10.4 per game). "Unfortunately, everything played out the way it happened. It was just me trying to reach out and be generous, but it backfired on me. I'd just like to apologize to everybody for this being a distraction to the team, and I'm just looking forward to in the future, hopefully getting this behind me."
Smith said Mbakwe also will face undisclosed consequences beyond not starting against Purdue.
"We're disappointed in him not adhering to the rule and disappointed that he did that, and I think he's learned a serious lesson about that," Smith said. "When you don't obey the rules or a court order, it brings a negative publicity to this program, to the university. We feel like we looked at it, we evaluated it. He's not going to start. There are other things we're going to do internally that he's going to have to do, so he can understand that that's not going to be tolerated, that's not going to happen. So having said that, that's where we are with the whole Trevor Mbakwe situation."
Smith then tried to steer the conversation away from Mbakwe's latest problem.
"I'll take any questions about Purdue and the Boilermakers, because that's what I'm focused on in that point in time," Smith said. "If you're not, then maybe you need to excuse yourself, OK? So if you have any questions about Purdue and us and our program, I'm ready to answer."
These Gophers should be used to distractions. Royce White? Gone since last February after a shoplifting charge, campus laptop theft investigation and YouTube announcement that preceded his decision to leave the team and quit school. Devoe Joseph? He missed the first six games of the year for violating team rules. Then he abruptly left the program and transferred to Oregon earlier this week, after averaging in double figures scoring.
Plus, Al Nolen missed most of last season because of academic troubles, two other players transferred after last season and there was a $1 million judgment against Smith and the university after would-be Gophers assistant Jimmy Williams claimed the school reneged on a job offer.
Mbakwe spent several hours in jail Monday night, briefly putting the Gophers' hopes for a successful season in jeopardy. But Mbakwe, who had 16 points and 12 rebounds in a 67-64 loss at No. 2 Ohio State on Sunday, will continue to play, although Smith wouldn't say how many minutes he will get Thursday.
Colton Iverson will move into the starting lineup against Purdue. Because of suspensions and injuries, the Gophers have used five starting lineups this season.
The Boilermakers enter the game as the more stable team. When they lost forward Robbie Hummel because of a torn ACL during the first week of practice, many assumed the Boilermakers would spiral into mediocrity.
Instead, they're 15-1 and they possess the No. 9 RPI, according to collegerpi.com. But this is their first game against a team ranked in a major poll (the Gophers are No. 25 in the USA Today coaches poll).
But unlike the Gophers, Purdue players didn't spend the week wondering about the status of one of their star players.
"I think you just gotta not worry about what's going on off the court and just worry about what's going on on the court," Hoffarber said. "I feel like the last couple of years we've kind of had a lot of off-the-court issues, but I think last year made us more experienced to that."
Duke's 25-game run stops on a rough stretch of ACC road. C5