Gophers basketball coach Tubby Smith on Thursday gave the strongest indication yet that Trevor Mbakwe, the Gophers senior who was recently granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, will return next season.
"I think he wants to be here. That's the conversation we had yesterday," Smith said during his first local news conference since the Gophers' season ended last week. "I think he's gearing up to be back, going through rehab."
The circumstances of Mbakwe's return remain unclear. With two incoming freshmen -- Wally Ellenson and Charles Buggs -- the Gophers would be at their scholarship limit of 13 without accounting for Mbakwe. Smith said the team sent a letter to the NCAA on Thursday essentially trying to get an extra scholarship for Mbakwe.
The team could hear back from the NCAA by next week. In the meantime, a spot could open up by what Smith termed "attrition." He was planning to meet with players as a group later Thursday, followed soon by individual meetings. Smith said he "wouldn't be surprised" if one or more players were considering transferring -- which would open up a scholarship for Mbakwe and potentially for Arizona State's Trent Lockett, a Hopkins graduate who is expected to transfer.
"You never know what will happen. I could have two or three [players] come to me and say, 'I'm not happy ... I didn't play enough minutes,' " Smith said. "They all think they deserve more. And when I tell them they deserve less, that's where the crossroads is. When we come to the fork in the road -- like Yogi Berra said -- we're going to take it."
Among the other highlights from Thursday's season-ending media session:
• Junior Rodney Williams, who averaged 19.2 points during Minnesota's five NIT games, is expected to return. Smith said he talked to Williams last week. "This is the first year he's come out and said, 'I need to be back here. I like the way I played last year. I like the way the season went,' " Smith said. "I think he wants to be a part of it."
• Smith said he's "confident we'll get it done" in reference to a contract extension, although not until the new athletic director is hired.
• Smith mentioned numerous staff members as being interested in pursuing other jobs but said that, as of now, "I expect them all to be back." Associate head coach Ron Jirsa, who was scheduled to interview on Wednesday for the head coaching job at Division III Northland College, withdrew his name from consideration, Northland athletic director Bill Wilson said on Thursday.
• Big man Mo Walker, who did not play this year because of a knee injury, practiced with the team while it was in New York for the NIT. He sprained his ankle by stepping on Elliott Eliason's foot, but his knee is healthy, Smith said.