Austin, Texas – The Gophers’ rebounding prowess, led by senior forward Trevor Mbakwe, has been widely discussed as a potential problem for UCLA. The Bruins’ interior is weaker, and they rank only 228th in the nation in rebounding, while the Gophers sit at No. 8 (and No. 1 on the offensive boards).
But UCLA 6-10 junior forward Travis Wear, the player who will be in charge of stopping the 6-8, 245-pound Mbakwe, doesn’t sound concerned.
“We have some pretty good bigs that we have played against in this league, some big teams,” Wear said. “Mbakwe, he’s big, he’s going to be a challenge, but if I force him off the block, I don’t think it will pose that big of a problem compared to some of the other guys I played against in the Pac-12.”
Told about the comments afterward in the locker room, Mbakwe just shook his head.
“I don’t need any extra motivation,” he said. “Whatever he has to say, it really doesn’t matter to me. It’s a good chance for me to go out and play against him and his brother. I’m not really putting that much into it. I could care less. Hopefully they don’t trap — that will be the real test to see how they feel about me.”
Wear’s comment about Mbakwe was one of two slightly salty statements he directed at the Gophers.
When discussing how to beat Minnesota, Wear said: “They don’t shoot the ball particularly well, which means it’s going to be a lot of misses. We need to box them out.”
Who’s the favorite?
The odds in Las Vegas — where the 11th-seeded Gophers are three-point favorites over No. 6 UCLA — and all of the media that has responded to the inverted underdog pretense have rung loud and clear in the Bruins locker room. Coach Ben Howland started digging up examples and posting them in the UCLA locker room, hoping to keep his players hungry.
“Coach obviously feels — well, he’s noticed it and he definitely wants that to motivate us,” point guard Larry Drew II said. “So we got the word that people are kind of counting us out.”
Gophers coach Tubby Smith said he hadn’t found a preference between using a longer bench and a shorter one.
“I’ve tried a little bit of everything, haven’t I?” Smith said. “I mean, it’s been up and down. We’ve tried to go with a deep bench, we haven’t been productive. We have gone with a short bench and haven’t been productive.
“… So maybe if I would answer your questions, ‘Have I found it?’ No. A hell of a thing to be saying right now, isn’t it?”
• Florida — the Gophers’ next opponent, should both teams win Friday — is 0-6 in games decided by six points or fewer. Said Gators coach Billy Donovan: “We have beaten teams on our schedule by 20 or more points twice as many times as we have lost close games. So I think in those situations to me, the more experiences you have, the more opportunities I think you have to handle those better.”