Gophers power forward Trevor Mbakwe is a big deal in China right now. The Chinese basketball fans who've watched him lead his national team to a 5-0 record in the World University Games in Shenzhen, China, treat him like a star.
"Everybody wants to take a picture because we’re the United States," Mbakwe said by phone Friday. "I don’t think there’s a bigger honor [than winning a gold medal] unless you're winning a national championship."
Mbakwe announced his arrival in the Big Ten by establishing himself as one of the league's premier post men last season, his first in the conference.
But he's added to his game and elevated his stock this summer with his stint on the national team and previous appearances at high profile summer camps sponsored by NBA stars Amare Stoudemire and LeBron James.
"Individually, I just want to keep getting better as a player," he said. "I don’t think I came close to scratching the surface of how good I can be."
Mbakwe said he'll embrace the expectations that will come with that summer success. He said he hopes to lead the nation in rebounding next season. And he said he knows he'll be vital to a 2011-12 Gophers squad, which will feature a multitude of fresh faces.
He said the international experience has made him a better defender because big men overseas are so perimeter-oriented. He said he's also growing by competing against some of the best returning college players in the country.
Mbakwe said he's learned more about leadership by playing with veterans such as Michigan State's Draymond Green and Syracuse's Scoop Jardine, leaders for their respective programs. And he's prepared to play that role for the Gophers both on and off the floor next season.
"I think that’s going to play a real big key in next season. I didn’t do a good job last year of being a leader. I take blame in that, too," Mbakwe said. "I didn’t realize how good of a leader I had to be. … I think our team will only go as far as me and Ralph [Sampson III] take us."