The Gophers announced Monday that Trevor Mbakwe, who suffered a torn right ACL on Sunday against Dayton in the Old Spice Classic Championship, will miss the rest of the season, effectively altering the season landscape for Minnesota. A team source said the Gophers coaching staff is still unsure of who will start in Mbakwe’s place on Wednesday against Virginia Tech in the ACC Challenge.
As I mentioned before, I booked the Hawaiian vacation I just returned from several weeks before I knew about my new Gophers job. Then, I realized I would be missing an early-season tournament -- four games altogether. I honestly felt a guilty, but I also wondered “What is the biggest story I could miss?” That story happened. I didn’t see Trevor Mbakwe crumple to the court floor and I didn’t hear – although I read about – coach Tubby Smith talking about the forward’s right knee and how bad it looked. But in the aftermath, as we are figuring out just what this injury means for Mbakwe, I’d like to step back and look at just how it could affect a team that was trying -- and perhaps beginning -- to find its stride.
• The actual score to the Old Spice tournament title game against Dayton is a visual reminder of just how important Mbakwe is to the Gophers. Yes, he had struggled from defensive pressure before he left the game, and the Gophers were already trailing 45-36 when the star forward left early in the second half. But Mbakwe has led the charge in several come-from-behind wins already this season. And even if it didn’t happen this time, taking the first loss of the year in the game in which Mbakwe went down is a tangible landmark for what looks to be the start of a very different season.
• The Gophers’ thin frontcourt just got thinner. In the last year, the Gophers have taken a big hit to an area that not too long ago seemed set as their greatest strength. Mo Walker left last December with a knee injury, and after reconstructive surgery has still not returned. Colton Iverson left after the 2010-11 season, opting to transfer to Colorado State University. With Mbakwe out, the Gophers are suddenly short of their only real post advantage left.
• In the absence of the leader of the “Big Three,” the other two – Rodney Williams and Ralph Sampson III -- will be expected to, and critically relied on, to step up their games. How that will play out is yet to be seen, but so far this season, Williams and Sampson have underperformed for the most part. Williams is as athletic as ever, and looked great in the game against DePaul on Thursday -- scoring 18 points and adding five rebounds, two assists and two steals -- but otherwise has affected games minimally. Sampson has looked more aggressive in the paint at times and has filled up the box score with assists, outside shooting and defense, but is not nearly the same scoring and rebounding presence as Mbakwe. Both will need to be more visible quickly for the Gophers to maintain a veteran presence and keep winning.
• Behind Sampson and Williams, the bench is extremely raw and inexperienced. Oto Osenieks and Elliott Eliason both redshirted last year and have thus far been able to slowly ease their way in to a big-time Division I college program. Andre Ingram transferred from a junior college and is still learning the system. In the last few games, the Gophers have seen encouraging performances from all three – particularly when Eliason was able to step in for Sampson last week against Mt. St. Mary’s and hold his own – but handing a major role to any of them right now will be dicey.
• In the past several games, when defenses have collapsed on Mbakwe, limiting his production, the Gophers have still found a way to win, with several players stepping up to fill the gap. That will be key going forward. Williams and Sampson will need to take it to a new level, but without the consistent production of Mbakwe, the Gophers will need a range of scorers to keep pace.
• With Mbakwe only having played in seven games, it’s possible he could apply for a sixth year of eligibility. Head coach Tubby Smith said last night on his radio program that the team is looking into the viability of that option. Then the forward could decide after rehabilitation and team workouts whether he wanted to try his luck professionally or return for another season with the Gophers.
• This injury marks yet another setback for the 22-year-old Mbakwe, who has not had an easy road in his college career. After playing minimally while being injured in his freshman year at Marquette, and then transferring to Minnesota after a year at Miami Dade junior college, Mbakwe had to sit out 2009-10 season due to legal issues when he was charged with felony assault in Florida. In 2010-11, Mbakwe’s season was tainted once again with new charges, after violating a restraining order against an ex-girlfriend. This season seemed to be a redemption year -- for a team that collapsed down the stretch last year, and for Mbakwe, who has stepped up both as a leader and an elite player early. Smith said knowing Mbakwe’s personality, he will do everything imaginable to get back on the court as quickly as possible. But when that will be is yet to be determined, and it certainly won't be this season for the Gophers.