Trevor Mbakwe did some impressive things in last night’s 61-50 loss at Michigan State. He pulled down 14 rebounds, the second-most he has all season. He was a major part of the Gophers’ initial comeback in the first half. He helped hold Spartans center Derrick Nix to just six points and five rebounds. He played through pain.

But it wasn’t hard to see that it was difficult for the center to get into any real rhythm, and there are several reasons for that.

First, coach Tubby Smith took Mbakwe out less than five minutes into the first half (along with Andre Hollins and Rodney Williams), opting for a lineup of Maverick Ahanmisi, Joe Coleman, Austin Hollins, Andre Ingram and Elliott Eliason. When Mbakwe was in, the Gophers struggled to get the ball to him down low with any continuity. And just when he was starting to get into a flow, Mbakwe was fouled hard and hit the floor. When he came up he was wincing was clutching his right wrist.

Mbakwe has been dealing with a sprained wrist and bone bruise on his right hand for the past two weeks, with Wednesday’s tweak being the third time in five games that he seemed to significantly exacerbate the injury. After the Michigan State foul, Mbakwe taped up his wrist (and played the rest of the game that way) but was able to execute his free throws.

“He's a hard-nosed kid, a real gutsy kid,” Smith said. “It's a strain, so it's going to be sore. When you're out there competing the adrenaline is flowing, he'll get treated and hopefully there's not any serious damage. He'll be fine I imagine.”
Said Mbakwe: “The Big Ten is physical. You get fouled pretty hard, but it’s part of the game and that’s what teams like to do and you’ve got to keep playing through it … It didn’t affect me too much with the adrenaline and the pain medications I was taking. It’s just another nagging injury that I’ve got going on.”

Mbakwe is smart. He knows fans don’t want to hear excuses. He knows the team needs him now, and the Gophers can’t afford for him to ask for any rest. He will continue to play through the pain – but the truth is, the Gophers weren’t getting the most out of Mbakwe even when his wrist was completely healthy.

The center – one of the team’s biggest difference-makers despite the fact that he’s been hobbled off and on all season – has become a more and more diminished aspect of the Gophers’ offense as the season has worn on and the competition has gotten stronger. When faced with zone defenses, the Gophers often all but give up going inside to him, leaving him to create his own shot or score off rebounds. Against Michigan State, the Gophers weren’t faced with that challenge, but the Spartans’ tough man-to-man and post defense was enough to limit the inside play.

“I thought Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix were playing outstanding post defense inside,” Smith said. “That limits your touches when you have that type of size.”

Unfortunately for the Gophers, that size (Payne is 6-10 and Nix is 6-9) is just about everywhere in the Big Ten, and cannot continue to be an excuse for untapped potential down low.

The Gophers badly need Mbakwe, he’s willing to fight through the pain for that, and yet the Gophers are minimizing his effect with a lack of offensive vision.

“I tried to be more aggressive,” Mbakwe said. “Toward the end they started playing us different and we weren’t able to take advantage of some of our inside plays. We were forced to take the long shots and stuff like that.”

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