The return of Trevor Mbakwe has been long awaited for Gopher fans.
Of course, everyone who is a major sports fan knows that an ACL injury includes a long road to return, and often a lot of question marks. But perhaps some Gophers fans – giddy with the prospect of another year of Mbakwe, and encouraged by the reports of an optimistic rehab – neglected to take into account the long mental road back that is also a part of the injury.
We haven't yet seen the Mbakwe of old. And right now, it looks like he still has a ways to go.
In the two exhibition games, Mbakwe appeared to be still favoring his left leg as he moved and ran. He hasn’t looked as explosive – even while dunking – as he has in the past, and you have to wonder if there is some mental tentativeness still present.
Mbakwe’s been playing with his teammates for a while now, but being in a live, unpredictable game -- against players whose tendencies you aren’t accustomed to -- is different altogether.
“I don’t think I’ve been as explosive as I usually am, but it will get there,” Mbakwe said. “The doctor said it usually takes about a year for it to get there and I don’t think I’m too far off in my playing.”
The clunky metal brace can’t help. From courtside it appears to be affecting his gait as he runs, but coach Tubby Smith denies that.
“After I looked at it, he’s always run like with one foot running into the other because he’s so pigeon-toed,” Smith said. “So if I look back last year to this year, there’s not much difference.”
But even Mbakwe admits he doesn’t feel quite to 100 percent, noting that when he would make a cut in the exhibition games, the injury would be in the back of his mind.
When will 100 percent come? Likely not tonight against American, but it does seem that there will be a return curve to Mbakwe’s play. The Gophers can manage that, with three games against fairly lightweight opponents.
But two weeks from now, when the Gophers are at Battle 4 Atlantis (their Thanksgiving tournament in the Bahamas) and opening against Duke, Minnesota will want to have the Trevor-Of-Old.
“I have faith in my doctor,” Mbakwe said. “If something is going to happen, it’s going to happen regardless and I’ve just got to go out, I can’t let that affect the way I play.”
Some thoughts on tonight’s game vs. American:
- The Gophers will find their first test in the paint, with the Eagles' apt duo of Tony Wroblicky (who had 18 rebounds in American’s exhibition against Mary Washington) and Stephen Lumpkins. Minnesota will need to rebound better than it did in the first exhibition game, against Minnesota State.
- The Eagles also have a couple of capable three-point shooters with Jesse Reed (who made 3 of 3 in the exhibition) and Daniel Munoz, who made 43.9 percent of his shots behind the arc a year ago – so the Gophers will be challenged to harass guards beyond the 3-point line once again.
- The Gophers biggest concern through two exhibitions has probably been turnovers. They had 14 against Minnesota State and 17 on Monday night. If this trend continues, it could get the Gophers playing scared. They need to fix it now. “I think a lot of it has to do with just being patient,” Austin Hollins said. “It’s there but sometimes we try to rush things and we end up making a pass that we don’t mean to hurry into. If we just run the offense, we’ll get open."
- Joe Coleman has been by far the best scorer for the Gophers and provided a big spark in the exhibitions. Can he keep it up against D-I competition? We’ll start to find out tonight.
Via Tubby Smith:
- The Gophers will use the same starting lineup as they have for the two exhibitions, Smith said: Andre Hollins, Joe Coleman, Austin Hollins, Rodney Williams, Elliott Eliason.
- Smith said after some of the second team issues on Monday, he won’t be doing as many wholesale switches tonight – probably. “We’ll be subbing guys in one at a time, two at a time, maybe not mass substitutions,” he said.
- Charles Buggs – the freshman who will not redshirt, according to Smith – has been dealing with a sinus infection, but practiced yesterday and should be fine to play tonight.
- In today’s Star Tribune: Instead of losing, Andre Hollins wants to smile.
- Also in today’s paper: Five questions the Gophers need to answer.
- Check out the matchup preview here.
- Listen to tonight’s game live here.
- Tonight’s game is not on TV unfortunately, but you can watch for a fee, here.
- On the blog today: Gophers wholesale lineup changes hurt them in the exhibitions.
- Want more on Trevor Mbakwe? Read my colleague Chip Scoggins' excellent column on how the sixth year senior can put a nice ending on a sometimes-dramatic career.