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Gophers Trevor Mbakwe pulled down a defensive rebound during the first half at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, Min., Wednesday November 1, 2012.

Kyndell Harkness, Dml - Star Tribune

Up next: 7 p.m. Monday vs. Southwest Baptist • Williams Arena • No TV or radio

Familiar faces return for Gophers in win over Mankato

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO
  • Star Tribune
  • November 2, 2012 - 6:34 AM

 

It's what they expected, and what they needed.

The Gophers men's basketball team showcased the returns of Trevor Mbakwe and Mo Walker, showed potential as a team and won its exhibition opener heartily Thursday night.

Joe Coleman went off for 21 points as the Gophers breezed past Minnesota State-Mankato 81-56 at Williams Arena.

"I was happy to be out there," Walker said. "It was just fun. It brought back memories from freshman year. I just tried to be out there and do what I do best -- be a big presence inside and it just paid off today I guess."

The Gophers were undoubtedly eager to start playing after a rocky offseason that included drunken driving arrests of both star forward Mbakwe and assistant coach Saul Smith. Those distractions had briefly hijacked preseason hype for a team that has been included in several top 25 rankings, but Thursday's exhibition was a sure reminder.

Mbakwe (four points), who hadn't played in a game since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last Nov. 27 in Orlando, and Walker (eight points), who had been off the court because of knee issues since December 2010, each took to the floor in the first half. Both looked to be moving well on their repaired knees -- although Mbakwe appeared to be tentative at times -- and scored quickly after entering.

"I thought he was really giddy and excited about being out there," coach Tubby Smith said of Walker. "That's his personality, and that's one of the things we missed last year, and the year before."

The positive returns were only a piece of the good vibes that surrounded the team.

Coleman, who earned a spot in the starting lineup as a freshman late last season, impressed early, cutting to the basket and looking aggressive in the paint.

"The night, I guess, was just my night," he said.

Others, such as Elliott Eliason, Andre Ingram and Austin Hollins, looked solid if not flashy. The Gophers' shooting, which was a perceived weakness a year ago, looked effortless as the team converted 72 percent of their shots in the first half and 63.2 overall. All 14 healthy Gophers played, and 13 scored.

Most of all, after last season, when many nonconference games were unnecessarily close, the Gophers put the heat on offensively and didn't look back. A 20-point lead at halftime didn't stop them from coming out aggressively after the break.

Of course, the team was far from perfect. The Gophers committed 14 turnovers and managed only a 36-30 edge over the Mavericks in rebounds despite a hefty size advantage.

Both were concerns last season when a young Gophers squad often mishandled the ball and a shallow frontcourt struggled to battle with Big Ten big men. Both aspects are expected to be shored up this season after the forward returns and an offseason spent focusing on ball handling drills.

Said point guard Andre Hollins, "I think we played well overall, but we still have a ways to go."

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