Late surge leads Gophers past Spartans

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  • January 1, 2013 - 1:21 PM


As we all know, Sunday was the one-year ACL surgery anniversary for two Minnesota sports icons: Adrian Peterson and Trevor Mbakwe.

For his part, Peterson was nothing short of dazzling, running for 199 yards – and falling just nine yards short of the all-time rushing record for a single season -- in the Vikings’ victory over the Packers that earned them a spot in the playoffs.

Heading into today’s matchup with No. 19 Michigan State, Mbakwe hasn’t had nearly the jaw-gaping season that Peterson has, but the situations have been quite different. As Mbakwe has pointed out, his team simply hasn’t needed him as much as the Vikings have needed Peterson. That’s not to say that Mbakwe isn’t important – of course he is. Even so, while Peterson was the Vikings’ lifeblood, Mbakwe has so far been just another contributor on a highly improved and balanced team.

The forward’s role, however, continues to grow. Without the necessity of another scorer in the lineup (because the Gophers were cruising along pretty good, status quo), coach Tubby Smith had the luxury of easing Mbakwe back slowly.

“It went by fast -- I forgot it was a year,” Mbakwe said. “A lot has changed. It made me appreciate my situation that much more. Basketball can be taken away from you at any day. I’m glad to be here, with my six year, playing with these guys against a top 20 opponent. It’s pretty exciting.”

Now, with the Big Ten season kicking off, it looks like Smith will start Mbakwe again (for the second time this year), despite a lackluster performance from the starters as a group in Minnesota’s last game against Lafayette.

With imposing big men Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix in Michigan State’s starting five, Mbakwe will have a good test of where he is.

“The level of intensity is going to pick up, and we’re excited for the challenge,” Mbakwe said.

Other notes on today’s matchup:

  • Mbakwe has gone through several practices without his chunky knee brace that he’s been wearing all season, he said. The forward is hopeful that he will be able to play without it either today or Sunday vs. Northwestern (a game, by the way, that has been set for 6 p.m. It had been a TBA time starting time until being announced on Monday It will be shown on the Big Ten Network).
  • Austin Hollins is still dealing with a mild groin strain, which he sustained on Dec. 8 against USC and Mo Walker, who was hit on the shoulder in a practice has received some treatment for his injury. Both are expected to play.
  • In the Gophers last game, vs. Lafayette, Smith played his regular starters, with Mbakwe replacing Elliott Eliason, who had started every game until that point. Smith could opt to go with the same lineup again, or potentially decide to go bigger, with Eliason at center, Mbakwe at power forward and Williams scooted over to the 3-spot. My guess is he’ll stick with his previous lineup, however, given that Branden Dawson – Michigan State’s version of Williams (a wing playing at the 4-spot) – has been playing at power forward.
  • Eliason didn’t play at all against Lafayette, but that move is probably not lasting. I expect to see the center today, either starting or off the bench.
  • Freshman Wally Ellenson played 15 minutes against Lafayette and did some good things, finishing with five points and four rebounds. Still, Smith is hesitant to guarantee his spot in the rotation. “He’s way behind. He hasn’t played, hasn’t practiced. You miss 11 games, and all the sudden it’s the Big Ten. He has a long way to go,” he said. “Wally has done as well as anybody in his situation, with the broken hand. He’s competitive, he’s a hard worker and he’s willing to stay after. He’ll see time. I don’t know how much.
  • For all the talk of Michigan State not being as strong as a year ago, the Spartans are doing a lot of things well. MSU is leading the league in scoring defense (allowing an average of 56.1 points a game) and field goal perentage defense (they are holding opponents to 35.3 percent of their shots). They are shooting third best in the Big Ten both from the field (47.8) and from the line (72.5).

Extra points: 

*Watch today's game on ESPN2

*Listen to today's game live on 1500-a.m.

*In today's Star Tribune: Rodney Williams' confidence has made his season successful.

*From Sunday's paper: The Big Ten schedule will tell the story of the Gophers season.

*From the blog yesterday: Are the Gophers ready for the Big Ten? 


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