Here’s the thing: obviously the Gophers want to have Trevor Mbakwe back and gunning at 100 percent for the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas (which starts a week from Thursday), but that just might not be in the cards.
The Gophers have been easing the sixth-year senior through a slow return and seem in no rush to usher him to the next step.
Physically? Mbakwe is fine. Ninety percent, I’d say.
Mentally? He’s playing pretty darn tough out there, so I’d offer 90 percent there as well.
But the Gophers seem to see no reason to risk something – anything, anything at all – with their prize player who they really, really, really want to see play a full season without drama or injury.
“I think he’s back,” coach Tubby Smith said after the opener, after he played Mbakwe for 14 minutes and watched him dole out an energetic second half.
But Monday, Mbakwe played only 14 minutes again – this time being more productive with them, scoring six points and seven rebounds with two blocked shots and two assists in that time.
“He’s ready – it’s just making sure that he doesn’t exert or extend himself too far right now,” Smith said. “So he’s playing within his game.”
Mbakwe has said that he feels pretty normal. But there are still a few remaining signals to his injury. One reporter noted that the forward always comes down on his left leg after going up for a ball. And Mbakwe is still wearing the chunky metal brace over his knee during games. He’ll keep that on, he said for probably another month or month and a half.
“I can’t wait to take it off,” Mbakwe said. “It gets kind of heavy sometimes, especially when I start getting up and down and moving, it starts sliding up and down. It’s kind of annoying sometimes, bbut I’m just doing the best that I can, playing with it.”
Lately, he’s been testing both the brace and his leg pretty good, diving for balls, jumping off the court, banging around in the paint and swinging from the basket after dunks.
The confidence boost that comes from going through those motions, and having everything be fine is huge, Mbakwe said, even if the coaching staff is sitting on the sideline all the while, hyperventilating.
Smith said he warned the team not to overuse Mbakwe in certain situations, even if it’s tempting.
“The guys look for him a lot,” Smith said. “But we’ve told them ‘You don’t need to call him for the lob every time, son. He’s coming off a knee and you guys want to be throwing it up there to him all the time.”
Said Mbakwe: “I think every time I make a little move or go off the court, they get a little frantic. But it’s small goals I’m reaching for myself. I’m challenging myself to do more every game and I think it’s going pretty good.”
Who could blame his teammates for wanting to see the Mbakwe star power or the forward for trying to stretch his limits?
After all, that’s what Gophers fans – and national basketball fans – have been waiting almost a year to see. If progress is any evidence it will come soon. It just might not be in time for Atlantis. (Just warning you guys to stop holding your breath; you’ll run out of air.)