Trevor Mbakwe dunks on and embarrasses defenders. His slams on fast breaks shake shot clocks. He snatches rebounds with fervor, and he swats shots into the fifth row.
That's this year. Last year: Trevor Mbakwe breaks down in his apartment during one of the worst stretches of his life.
The 6-8, 250-pound Mbakwe looked as strong emotionally as he did physically a year ago, when he was forced to sit out the college basketball season awaiting a felony assault trial that never happened. But privately, he admits he occasionally shed tears.
"It was heartbreaking," said Mbakwe, whose felony assault charge in Miami ended with a plea bargain agreement. "It was tough, not knowing if I was going to play here again or play basketball, period."
On Monday, both the Big Ten coaches and media made him a member of their all-conference second teams. Mbakwe, who has recorded 18 double-doubles this year, said he was shocked by the announcement.
"It actually hit me, it was reality,'' he said. "It just shows how much I've been through these last couple of years and knowing that I'm back and I've been able to have a successful year."
The Gophers enter Thursday's Big Ten tournament opener against Northwestern knowing they need to win four games in four days to receive a third consecutive NCAA invitation. Coach Tubby Smith has made it clear that his veterans, including Mbakwe, need to do even more for the Gophers to make a run at winning the tourney.
"We need [Mbakwe] to just concentrate on his defense," Smith said. "He's done a good job, he's been averaging a double-double all year. Certainly, he's got that skill set. We just need him to be more focused [defensively]."
If Mbakwe does step up his game, there could be a downside: It might be the last time the junior appears in a Gophers uniform.
The Big Ten tournament is also an unofficial tryout for Mbakwe. NBA scouts, execs and general managers will attend the four-day event in Indianapolis to analyze Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Purdue's JaJuan Johnson, projected first-round picks in this summer's draft.
Mbakwe, who is averaging 13.7 points and 10.5 rebounds this season, has already jumped onto the radar of NBA and European professional teams.
"It really depends on how he does in the Big Ten tournament," said one NBA and international scout, who said he is prohibited from publicly discussing college juniors. "I think the Big Ten tournament could make or break him."
Mbakwe said he is not focused on the next level, but he understands the possible stakes this week.
"It definitely is an audition," he said. "You know every game is an audition, especially playing in the Big Ten. You just gotta always play hard."
Mbakwe said he will probably enter this summer's NBA draft without hiring an agent, a typical move for players who want to test the waters of the pros without a full commitment. He said he is open to playing in Europe if it's "the right opportunity."
"[Entering the draft] helps people make a lot of decisions because you're actually hearing from the head man, you're not hearing from the runners and the agents," he said. "You're hearing from the people who are actually making the decisions, evaluating your game and seeing where you are as player and if it's best for you to come back or stay or if you're better off just coming out this year. That's definitely the best way to really figure out where you're at."
Smith says Mbakwe and Chuck Hayes, a 6-6 forward who played for Smith at Kentucky, employ similar tools. Hayes, who is averaging 7.3 points per game for the Houston Rockets, wasn't selected in the 2005 draft but is playing in his fifth NBA season.
The biggest difference between the players, Smith said, is that Hayes made clutch plays and could get a bucket for the Wildcats when they needed one. Mbakwe's offense needs to improve before he's fully prepared for a pro career, Smith said.
"He could do that. He's gotta do it here. I know he's averaging a double-double, but he's gotta make plays," he said. "If you don't play here at the end of the game, you're not going to do it at the next level."
Former Gophers star Trent Tucker played in the NBA for more than a decade. He said Mbakwe's stock could soar if he adds a consistent jump shot to his arsenal during the offseason.
"There's nothing wrong with testing the waters," Tucker said. "I think for him, [it's about] expanding his range beyond 15 to 17 feet, that would be a huge plus for him. We all know that he can finish at the rim. But he's not going to be a consistent low-post, back-to-the-basket player at the next level, if he gets there."
Across the ocean
Some players in Mbakwe's situation skip the NBA route and pursue pro careers overseas.
Carl Berman, a partner with the international and domestic scouting firm NetScouts Basketball, said Mbakwe could attract a six-figure salary in Europe right now.
"He could do very well in Europe," Berman said. "The problem with Europe is you have to get on the right team. In the right situation, he would do well."
Mbakwe said there is another factor to consider: what's best for Makhi, his 3-year-old son. Mbakwe said the ability to provide for him will influence whether he stays in college or opts for a pro career after this season.
"He's obviously taking it into consideration," said Jennifer Belsito, Mbakwe's fiancée. "I also know he wants to stay here and develop a little bit more."