When Trevor Mbakwe takes ice baths now, it’s just regular athlete maintenance, not rehab, he said on Monday.
As the Gophers head toward the Big Ten schedule start on New Year's Eve, the sixth-year senior has been indicating in the last couple weeks that all is back to normal. His leg doesn’t get sore anymore (only a little stiff sometimes), his explosiveness is returning and he’s starting to feel like himself.
But the reality is, nothing is normal about a situation in which Trevor Mbakwe says he’s fine, and coach Tubby Smith continues to bring him off the bench.
That’s not to say there isn’t an argument to keeping things the way they are. Keeping Mbakwe as a sixth man gives the team real pop in their second surge. It creates some matchup problems for opponents who have to decide when to play their strongest big man.
But the simple answer for why Mbakwe isn’t in the starting lineup right now is that this team – riding a wave that has thus far exceeded preseason expectations – hasn’t needed him.
You can say what you want about better combinations, fully utilizing his strengths – heck, I’ve gone on and on about that. But the blunt fact is, the Gophers have CRUISED so far with him in an often minimized role. They’ve looked pretty darn good.
Is it really surprising, then, that Smith might be thinking If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?
Last year and before this season, I speculated a lot about whether Mbakwe’s absence was in some ways good for a team that was young and raw and timid and trying to figure things out. Now, 12 games in, we’re seeing the benefits of every player having to take the burden. The confidence of the individuals in the starting five is light years away from where it was a year ago, and the offense is ticking. Each guy that stepped up with Mbakwe out has carried over that momentum to this year and has continued to grow.
Smith might not want to mess with that.
Mbakwe, ever the vocal leader and good sport, has voiced his view that he’s fine with wherever and whenever he plays, and as long as he gets good minutes – even if he occasionally pauses before telling the media it’s fine, and his face gives us hints that for his ultra-competitive nature, this is probably a little tough.
“I don’t know about starting, I just want the minutes,” he said. “I’m happy with where I’m at. It’s not something – I don’t care much about starting. Coach always says you want to be the guy that’s in the last five minutes of the game, that’s who you trust and I’d rather be in the last five minutes of the game rather than starting the first five and being that second wave type of guy. That’s more my goal.”
That nothing is normal has had positive influences on Mbakwe’s game as well, he said. He’s not always playing with the starting group, so he’s expected to create his own shot a little more and he’s transitioned mostly to a center role, meaning he’s going up against even bigger guys.
“I definitely think my game has developed since last year,” he said. “In the past I’ve been able to depend on my athleticism a lot, just jumping over people and stuff like that. And now, I wouldn’t say I’m a below-the-rim type player, I wouldn’t go that far, but just getting more smart. At the next level, I’m going to be playing against bigger guys and guys that are more athletic than I am and the game of baseketball is a game of smarts. You’ve got to be able to out-work people and out-smart people.”
Considering Mbakwe’s Dec. 30th surgery last year was on the exact same date as Minnesota Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson ACL surgery was, the comparison is a popular one. But the situation marking each star’s return was pretty different. This season, Peterson has been the light of a Vikings team that has otherwise struggled offensively For Mbakwe, he’s merely a contributor now, one of many in a roster full of balance.
“The way he’s been playing has been tremendous,” Mbakwe said of Peterson. “His team needed him a lot more than what my team has needed me this year. I’ve had the luxury of having rest … coach doesn’t want to overwork me at this moment. Obviously I want to play a lot more, but I’ve just got to be smart about the whole situation. I trust coach and he wants what’s best for me and the team and as long as we’re winning I’m happy.”
And winning they are. As long as they do will anything change? My guess is no.