Whenever Trevor Mbakwe returns from Shenzhen, China, where his national squad finished fifth in the World University Games Monday, everything will be different.
Last year, he emerged as a premier post man in the Big Ten. The league's coaches didn't know much about the player who had missed two years of Division I basketball and really didn't play during his freshman year at Marquette due to injuries. So his rise was subtle.
In 2011-12, however, Mbakwe will not surprise. He won't be the focus of the intrigue that grew throughout his junior season, when he led the Big Ten in rebounding.
He will instead face the opposing force in his senior campaign: high expectations.
Mbakwe has wandered the world this summer and he's shown coaches, colleagues and competitors that he's one of the best power forwards in college basketball.
He earned invitations to the Amare Stoudemire and LeBron James skills camps.
He finished his successful stint in the World University Games Monday with 21 points, eight rebounds and a 7-for-9 clip from the charity stripe in the national team's 86-83 win over Germany.
ESPN's Dick Vitale made Mbakwe a fifth-teamer on his All-Solid Gold squad. He's No. 22 on NBADraft.net's 2012 mock draft board.
He's the top player on a Gophers team that features seven guys who've never competed in a Big Ten matchup. He will have to be The Guy for Tubby Smith next season. Ralph Sampson III will be a key figure for that squad. But Mbakwe has to lead that team.
The bar has certainly been raised.
Kenneth Faried (17.3 ppg, 14.5 rpg, 2.3 bpg, 1.9 spg) and Kawhi Leonard (15.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 0.6 bpg, 1.4 spg) were first-round picks in June. Like Mbakwe, they're both 6-7/6-8 forwards with a shared appetite for rebounds.
By the end of their college careers, however, Faried and Leonard were effective players away from the basket on both ends of the floor. That versatility led both players to NBA money.
Mbakwe has that level of potential. Here's a guy who averaged 13.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game in what was essentially his first year of Division I basketball.
His free throws had an allergy to cylinders (63 percent). He led the team in turnovers (2.2 per game). He never looked comfortable away from the paint.
Unlike other elements of the game, he can improve in all of those areas before the start of his final collegiate season.
"It's just a confidence-builder knowing that I’m able to compete," he said last week about his World University Games experience. "These same guys are some of the best players in the country and other countries, too."
Since Mbakwe earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last year, I think it's fair to expect him to achieve first-team all-conference honors and to play his way into the All-America conversation by the end of the 2011-12 campaign.
The Gophers coaching staff believes Mbakwe can have a special year that ends with national honors.
I'm speaking from a preseason perspective. Things can change once November arrives. In the preseason, however, we set the bar, the projections and the expectations.
And for Mbakwe, they're all quite lofty. An impressive offseason will do that.
"Individually, I just want to keep getting better as a player," he said last week. "I don’t think I came close to scratching the surface of how good I can be."
Another reason to expect even more from the promising power forward next year.