TALLAHASSEE, FLA. - Trevor Mbakwe sat straight-faced as he was interviewed Saturday after the Gophers' last-second victory over Stanford for fifth place at the Battle 4 Atlantis basketball tournament in the Bahamas.
He had just amassed 19 points and 12 rebounds off the bench -- by far the most productive performance the Gophers have received from him this season and an effort that would have been impressive even last year before the sixth-year senior tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. But when asked about the hustle and intensity with which he played, Mbakwe shrugged.
"That's just the way I have to play to help this team," he said. "Make plays on defense and play with energy. ... I've just got to play hard at all times and take advantage of opportunities when I'm out there."
As the newly ranked No. 21 Gophers head into Tallahassee to face Florida State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday -- and continue to prepare for a grueling Big Ten season -- they will need Mbakwe to be that guy in order to be successful. Coincidentally, Tuesday happens to be the exact one-year anniversary of Mbakwe's injury, which came against Dayton in the title game of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando.
Mbakwe wasn't outwardly thrilled by his performance Saturday because he knows it's simply necessary. But until Saturday, the 6-8, 245-pound forward had been getting inconsistent minutes off the bench and showing only momentary flashes of the explosive player he was before his injury.
"He's showing a lot of stamina," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said of Mbakwe. "He always plays with energy and toughness ... but I've been impressed with how he's gotten better. Just the shooting percentages, his free-throw shooting, things he's done extremely well."
In the Gophers' first game in The Bahamas, a 89-71 loss against No. 5 Duke, Mbakwe had 11 points and three rebounds in 18 minutes. The 11 points were his season high at the time, but he scored only five against Memphis -- when Andre Hollins took over with his career-high 41 points.
With Hollins limited to only eight points against Stanford, Mbakwe took over for the Gophers in a 66-63 victory. Even more so, they need a consistent imposing presence in the paint to battle with 7-foot Florida State big man Kiel Turpin, as well as the intimidating frontcourts scattered across the Big Ten.
"He was impressive," Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said of Mbakwe. "I thought he had a presence on the floor. He rebounded well, he scored around the basket. I think he's going to give them the added dimension they were missing last year."
Smith has many more options now than he did a season ago, with a deep frontcourt that includes starters Elliott Eliason and Rodney Williams, with Mbakwe, Andre Ingram and Mo Walker off the bench. And it gives the Gophers the capability of going big and tough -- with Williams at small forward, Mbakwe at power forward and Eliason at center -- or small and fast, with Williams sliding to power forward and Mbakwe or another mobile big man at center.
"I've always believed that the more talented and quality players you have, the more you try to wear the opposing team down and hopefully that will show up at the end of the game as far as your team having more stamina," Smith said. "You have to have other players that can contribute and I think [guys such as] Andre Ingram, Mo Walker, they're giving us inside bulk and that's why we're doing a good job on the boards and rebounding better."
But either way, the Gophers are better -- more intimidating and more skilled -- with a productive Mbakwe in the lineup. He is quick enough to keep up with a team that wants to play an up-tempo offense and pressing defense, yet he is tough enough to battle down low with the best.
And with Mbakwe looking close to 100 percent healthy -- he was diving on the floor and over press row after loose balls Saturday -- he remains the X factor if the Gophers are going to prosper this season.
"I think every game I can kind of tell a difference," Mbakwe said. "I'm able to do more and more."