If on Friday Trevor Mbakwe was trying to convince us he feels fine, it worked.
After a first half in which the sixth-year senior didn’t get much action – playing just six minutes and leaving without a point or a rebound – Mbakwe came out with a new energy in the second half.
Late in the game (when of course the score was um, not close, in the eventual blowout against American) Mbakwe dove on the floor for a loose ball, his momentum sending him crashing into several media members on press row (I survived by a mere chair-length).
Moments later, he hurled himself at the end line to try to snag a ball on its way out of bounds and literally jumped off the raised court backwards and into the stands – before jumping right back up and getting back into his defensive stance.
In case he hadn’t made his point, in the same five-minute game-ending stretch, Mbakwe finished with a vicious alley-oop dunk off a nice toss by Chris Halvorsen.
“I think he’s back,” coach Tubby Smith said. “I thought he looked good out there I thought he played extremely well and he didn’t seem to be playing with any hesitancy.”
That’s for sure.
After the game, Mbakwe seemed full of energy. He looked down at his knee --out of that huge, awkward-looking brace he’s still wearing -- and said it felt great.
“I know some fans, they always get nervous when I hit the ground or something, but hopefully now [they won’t],” he said.
I’ll admit, I another one of those people that grimaced when he hit the floor hard, then again when he violently leapt off the court.
But after he popped back up each time, without a trace of pain in his expression, and went right back to what he was doing, I think everyone in the stadium had a collective moment of:
“Oh. Well, I guess he’s good then.”
And maybe that happened within Mbakwe’s mind too. He’s been saying all the right things and I do believe that he feels his knee is healed and his doctors aren’t lying to him. But sometimes, one of those games – where you just crash the heck out of it, and it’s still fine – goes further than any step of the rehab. Because as Mbakwe has said all along, the mental return is the hardest part about it.
By the time Mbakwe was swinging from the rim after his dunk, it felt certain that no one was grimacing, instead the Barn erupting with the loudest cheers of the night.
“It felt great, just having that confidence,” Mbakwe said. “Probably two months ago I wouldn’t be able to do some of the stuff I did tonight, but I just have to give credit to my training staff and my strength guy, getting back to that point where you’re just playing reckless and I’m not thinking about my knee.”
Mbakwe finished with four points, two assists, three rebounds, two steals and a turnover in 11 minutes.