The change that Gophers fans have been anticipating since the beginning of the season could actually happen as soon as Saturday.
Minnesota coach Tubby Smith alluded in Friday’s media access that he could be inserting star forward Trevor Mbakwe into the starting lineup in the near future, possibly tomorrow vs. Lafayette.
“Obviously you’re getting a better athlete in the lineup and you want to play with your best people on the court,” Smith said of the still-hypothetical move. “We know how good Trevor is … it’s a balancing act about how guys respond, how does Elliott respond to coming off the bench, how does Trevor respond to being in the starting lineup. It’s a wait-and-see thing -- if it happens.”
If the move does happen, it wouldn’t be related to Mbakwe’s health and Smith finally trusting his star’s repaired knee, he said.
“I’m comfortable with his knee,” Smith said. “It’s a team. It’s not individuals, it’s a team. So I’ve got to worry about how everyone responds and is that the best team on the floor at the time. It may be the best athletes, but is it the best team.”
Mbakwe has come off the bench for the Gophers since the start of the season after missing most of last year with a torn ACL. Recently, though, Smith has played the sixth-year senior increased minutes with the starting group, and given the opportunity, Mbakwe has excelled. In the team’s last outing, vs. North Dakota State, the reserve exploded for 14 points and 18 rebounds in 21 minutes.
“He hasn’t talked to me directly about it, but yeah, he’s been working me out with our starting five pretty often,” Mbakwe said. “I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing and if it happens, it happens, if not I’ve just got to keep playing the way I’ve been playing.”
After the game against Lafayette, the Gophers start conference play, opening that part of the schedule with a home game vs. Michigan State on New Years’ Eve. Starting Mbakwe Saturday would be a good transition move so that the team isn’t experiencing against the increased competition of the league. But if that’s the way it happens, Rodney Williams is confident Mbakwe will be fine.
“I don’t think he needs a game,” Williams said. “I know Trevor. Trevor would be ready if coach would start him in the Big Ten, without getting any starts until then. Trevor is a guy that comes in with energy whatever point of the game he comes in, so I’m not too worried about how many starts he gets before the Big Ten.”