Trevor Mbakwe’s attitude after Gophers practice today was refreshing.
He took ownership. He accepted responsibility. He talked about playing harder, and better, starting with him.
He sounded like a leader.
“I have to play better,” he said. “It’s been inconsistent with me this year and these last couple weeks. I’ve been trying to be more aggressive. … We have to take it to a whole [new] level and it starts with me personally.”
It was refreshing because for most of the season, we’ve heard the Gophers talk about depth and balance. We’ve heard them say they don’t have a go-to guy – because it could be anyone – and that their plan is to feed whoever’s hot.
But the “Team of Equals” theme has left the Gophers as a struggling team with no one on the hook. Yes, they all need to produce and contribute. But they also need an inspiration, someone to call them out individually, someone to set a tone of dissatisfaction.
And in their moments of collapse, in their apparent panic, in their highs and lows -- both on the court and off -- leadership has been a big problem.
Heck, their inability to lead themselves has gotten their coach acting like he got stuck with the group of middle schoolers in a high school tournament.
Asked whether he wants to see the team find a leader, find the guy who will take responsibility and step up, Tubby Smith responded:
“We don’t have that one guy. We’ve been looking for him, but we don’t have that one guy. That’s why it has to be a total team effort. If we did, trust me, we’d be using that one guy. If I had a Carmelo Anthony or if I had somebody like Trey Burke, if we had somebody like that. We’ve tried in many different ways. Andre Hollins is probably the one that will give us the most versatility, but that’s about it.”
But whether Smith wants to say it, it does start with Mbakwe. He can’t be the only one, but he can be the intense, consistent, experienced presence.
The sixth-year senior seems to have hit a new stride in the last few weeks, contributing 49 points and 31 rebounds in the previous three games leading up to the finale at Purdue before getting six and 10, respectively, in that game.
“I didn’t play well at Purdue and we lost, and I have to play better if we want to win games,” Mbakwe said. “Everybody has to play at that level, but I hold myself accountable.”
That’s just the attitude the Gophers need heading into the postseason.
Other quick notes from today’s coach and player availability:
- Asked whether Smith planned to switch up the lineup at all (perhaps starting Maverick Ahanmisi or Julian Welch at point with Joe Coleman off the bench, as the Gophers have used in in-game situations recently), Smith indicated he would stand pat. “We’ve tried a lot of different weapons. We’ve played everybody in every game just about, so they’ve had plenty of opportunties. We’ve just got to find the right button to push in the game. Starting, in my opinion, is not a big deal, the big deal is who’s performing at the clutch time, crunch time when we need them to perform.”
- Regarding Rodney Williams, and what the key to unlocking the senior’s potential might be, Smith said: “I’ve been trying for four years. I think it’s just staying focused, just playing as hard as he can play, every minute and every second on the court. Not taking any time off, just every possession’s got to be all out. I think that’s it. We always tell guys, you can just play harder – that’s the key, just play as hard as you can play.”
- Smith said he’s trying to keep any pressure off this team as they head into the Big Ten tournament, stating that the Gophers have “had trouble responding to pressure. … There are a lot of different ways to approach it, as far as what we say about ‘now or never.’ We try to say, Look, it’s another opportunity for us. It’s a chance for us to improve and get better and that’s about the way I approach it. “
- When it comes to his two seniors (Mbakwe and Williams) that have been at Minnesota and in major roles the longest, Smith said the pair will need to overachieve if the team is to have success. “I’d like to see it,” he said. “I think they’re trying. I think they’re giving us their best effort. It is what it is. I don’t think they haven’t tried to play better. It’s just – we all have limitations. And at this point in time, you’ve got to overachieve. And if they’re willing to overachieve, we’ll have a good run.”