Trevor Mbakwe's body language Sunday night signaled doom. So did the looks on the faces of his coaches and teammates. But everyone associated with the Gophers men's basketball team still held out hope that the results of Monday's magnetic resonance imaging exam on Mbakwe's injured right knee would bring something other than bad news.
As has been the case in so many seasons under coach Tubby Smith, however, there was no such luck.
The MRI confirmed everyone's worst fear: Mbakwe -- the Gophers' top player, main energy source and chief reason to believe an NCAA tournament berth was possible -- suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament while battling for a rebound Sunday against Dayton. The fifth-year senior's season is over, and likely his career with the Gophers is as well. He will undergo surgery, likely in late December after swelling in the knee subsides.
"We are certainly going to miss him. He's having a great year. He's our leader. He's been a big emotional leader for us," Smith said in a statement. "Our players look up to Trevor, not just because of his talent, but because of his work ethic, and the type of person he's been."
In a statement, Mbakwe said: "My family and I would like to thank everyone for their support." Later on Twitter, he wrote: "I'm so lucky to have all the support I've been getting. It doesn't feel real yet but I'll get better and rehab like crazy. I love all of u and thanks so much."
College athletes can seek a sixth year of eligibility under special circumstances -- Gophers football player Kim Royston was granted a sixth year -- but there are no guarantees the NCAA would give it to Mbakwe. Smith said on his radio program on 1500 ESPN Monday that it's "something we're checking on now ... to figure out if that is an option." Mbakwe -- who turns 23 in January and who flirted with entering the NBA draft in the offseason before returning to the Gophers -- might be eager to test his pro prospects after he recovers, regardless of his eligibility. He is slated to graduate in December.
The 6-8 forward landed awkwardly while battling for a rebound early in the second half of the Gophers' 86-70 loss to Dayton in the Old Spice Classic title game in Orlando. Mbakwe's right knee appeared to buckle and he was down on the court for several minutes before being helped off.
Mbakwe is averaging 14.0 points and 9.1 rebounds a game, tops in both categories for the Gophers (6-1). He was a preseason All-Big Ten pick and a preseason Lute Olson All-America, among other early accolades.
Teammates and foes took to Twitter on Monday to wish Mbakwe well. Gophers center and fellow co-captain Ralph Sampson III -- in what appeared to be his first tweet ever on the account @RalphSampson3 -- said, "Hoping my teammate, Trevor, makes a healthy recovery." Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor, like Mbakwe a former Minnesota prep standout, tweeted: "Prayin for a speedy recovery for my guy @TMbakwe32."
Mbakwe's injury is another blow to a program beset in recent years by injuries, transfers and other off-court problems. Without Mbakwe, the Gophers' prospects of being an NCAA tournament-caliber team are significantly dimmer, and the roster has a sizable void when it comes to big men. Mo Walker is still out after his knee injury suffered last December, Sampson has been hobbled by a sprained ankle and Colton Iverson transferred after last season.
Smith said others, including Rodney Williams, will have to step up. On his radio program, Smith said Williams could move from small forward to power forward, with Julian Welch, a combo guard, shifting into the starting lineup Wednesday against Virginia Tech. Junior college transfer Andre Ingram, averaging 2.0 points in just under 8 minutes per game, could see more minutes. Redshirt freshman Elliott Eliason has also played quality minutes in recent games.
If this is the end for Mbakwe, it will be the capper on a college career filled with challenges. He missed most of his freshman season at Marquette because of a left knee injury before transferring to Miami Dade Community College. From there, he came to the Gophers but redshirted in 2009-10 while sitting out with legal troubles. Mbakwe emerged as a force for the Gophers last season and led the Big Ten in rebounding at 10.5 per game.
"The team has watched what he's had to deal with and overcome, and I think that endears you -- me, too -- to a person like him," Smith said. "He knows that we're here for him, and we will do whatever we can do to help him through this process ... Trevor's done everything we've asked him to do in his time here at the University of Minnesota. He's been through an awful lot. That says a lot about his toughness to be able to recover from the things he has already endured."