For people who don’t talk to Gophers coach Tubby Smith on a regular basis, it’s hard to understand why he does what he does all the time.
For example, one of the most common questions I get from Minnesota fans is: “Why isn’t Trevor Mbakwe starting?”
But while I could go on about the delicacies of bringing back a player from a major knee surgery – both physically and mentally -- the answer, as far as I can tell, is actually much more simple:
The Gophers’ current starting center, Elliott Eliason, did plenty to win the job at the end of the year last year and at the start of this season this year … and now, that spot is his to lose.
The truth is, Eliason embodies the kind of player Smith craves – he’s physical enough to battle underneath the basket, he’s fast enough to keep up with the Gophers up-tempo offense, he’s conditioned enough to stick with the press and most of all, he plays with all the heart and energy and hustle you could ask for.
Eliason is a guy whose effort is never questioned, the rare athlete that takes responsibility for his shortcomings and displays incredible self-awareness in interviews. He’ll tell you when he played poorly, and when he shakes his head and tells you how he’s trying to improve daily and get better – well, you believe his passion.
And for Smith, an intensely loyal coach, Eliason has earned his right to be the guy now. Mbakwe – who returned to the team off an injury, and in spite of some off-season drama – will have to earn that all over again too, but it’s not going to be a quick switcheroo just because the big man is back and healthy.
So what happens now? Judging by the attitude I’ve seen from Day 1 from Eliason, that give-it-all mindset isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So does Mbakwe just play off the bench for the rest of the season?
Herein lies the problem: for all of Eliason’s attributes – and there are plenty – Mbakwe is unquestionably more talented. Mbakwe in the starting lineup makes the team better. It’s not a question.
The Gophers have been playing pretty well and winning games. And with the exception of the Richmond and Stanford games, it’s been without Mbakwe – coming off the bench – getting many minutes or making a significant impact. On Tuesday in a big road victory over Florida State, Mbakwe played 19 minutes but had just six points and four rebounds and never really made much of a splash.
But things will change. The Gophers will start conference play in the Big Ten in just over a month, and we are starting to get a fuller look of just how challenging that will be, against the cache of incredible talent.
We saw in the Stanford game what Mbakwe is capable of doing – right now – if he’s given enough chances, and in the right rotation. Playing Mbakwe in a lineup without the Gophers’ best playmakers and athletes diminishes what the sixth-year senior can do – it effectively buries his potential.
Swapping Mbakwe for Eliason in the starting five, however, isn’t the only option the Gophers have to better utilize their frontcourt pieces.
While it hasn’t gotten a ton of looks, Smith has played Mbakwe along with Eliason in certain situations to create a bigger frontcourt. Those two, along with Rodney Williams at small forward and the Hollinses at 1 and 2 makes for a pretty formidable (yet still quick) group.
Of course, that scenario would eliminate Joe Coleman, who has been playing well lately, can be a real scoring threat and is showing improvements in a lot of ways.
If they want to go smaller, Eliason and Mbakwe could platoon, but it’s important, still, that the latter is still played with the right four around him.
In any adjustment, someone in the current five is left out. And maybe that’s not fair. But if this Gophers team is going to continue to be successful, some tough (team-oriented) love might be in order.