Even during a season that to this point Trevor Mbakwe has described as "not what I expected," the big man doesn't shy away from reading the media coverage.
Instead, he uses it to fuel his inner fire -- and Gophers opponents are just starting to fully feel the burn.
Tuesday, Mbakwe ignited Williams Arena for his brightest performance this season, shaking off the North Dakota State frontcourt with a brilliant double-double off the bench and boosting the Gophers to a 70-57 victory.
Afterward, he shook off the naysayers in the locker room.
"That's what you expect," he said. "I sometimes read it, but I don't put too much into it. It just adds more fuel to the fire and motivates me in a good way. I'm focused. I'm ready for the next game, getting ready for the Big Ten and the second part of our season."
The Gophers (11-1) looked it on Tuesday, overcoming a poor shooting night (38.3 percent from the field) with hearty second-half play in their last game before an 11-day break for final exams. After Rodney Williams (a season-high 19 points and six rebounds) jump-started the team with a terrific first half that included a 360-dunk that had the announced crowd of 10,472 roaring and became ESPN's overall "Play of the Day."
Shortly thereafter, Mbakwe took the reins, finishing with 14 points and a career-high 18 rebounds.
Playing increased minutes with the starting core for the second consecutive game, the senior forward looked more explosive than he has all season, playing aggressive offense for extended periods, beating out everyone who challenged him on the boards and suffocating the Bison (8-3) with his swarming defense.
"If he can keep doing that, it's going to be a lot of problems out there for a lot of teams out there," Williams said of Mbakwe.
He looked, frankly, like the old Mbakwe -- the one who was projected as a possible first-round pick in the NBA draft before tearing his ACL early last season.
"It definitely helps," said Mbakwe of playing and practicing lately with the starters. "Especially in games like this, like tonight, when Elliott [Eliason] got into foul trouble and I had to play with them, it was just like picking up, like I wasn't missing anything."
The sixth-year senior has been saying all year that he doesn't care whether he starts or not, but at this point, it's getting difficult to justify having him come off the bench. The Gophers have been cruising through the nonconference schedule, but with the gritty, physical Big Ten slate ahead, it seems to make the most sense for the Gophers to fully utilize one of their best weapons. Meanwhile, starting center Eliason finished the game without a point or rebound in seven minutes, after notching just two points against USC.
Coach Tubby Smith has been clear about his stance for now, but after Tuesday's outing he seemed to be softening.
"I think whether he's starting or coming off the bench, it doesn't matter," he said. "He's really developing, he's very patient in the post. He's learning to do other things, develop other phases, other parts of his game, other than sheer power."