Trevor Mbakwe stood up and smacked his hands together. "Block him out, Rodney!" he shouted at Gophers basketball teammate Rodney Williams. "Get that one!"
Mbakwe clapped for summer league players wearing faded blue Howard Pulley Pro City league jerseys instead of maroon and gold. Otherwise, the scene was something Gophers fans grudgingly got used to last season, after Mbakwe tore his right ACL in November.
"I became a top-of-the-top, first-class cheerleader these last nine months, so add that to my rsum," Mbakwe said, grinning. "It was fun watching Rodney [Williams] and those guys, they feel like my brothers. ... But hopefully I won't spend too much time on the bench in the future."
Mbakwe can joke now. After the game Thursday, Mbakwe -- who has not been made available to the media since announcing in mid-April that he had accepted a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA -- talked about his rehabilitation, his decision to come back and how he thinks the Gophers will fare this season.
•On his injury: Mbakwe said he is in the final stage of a rehab process that started with a December surgery. Right now, he is able to do "pretty much everything," he said, including cutting, jumping, pivoting and running. Right now, he's playing at "medium contact" and is little bit ahead of schedule, according to his trainer. "We've been pretty smart about it the last few months," said Mbakwe, who is aiming to be back on the court when school starts in early September.
"Obviously, I kind of want to push it some, but we would just do as much as we could and then react to how my knee was feeling the next day," Mbakwe said. "If it was feeling pretty good and not sore, we'd kind of ramp it up a little."
The next steps are to continue heavy conditioning, progress to full contact and to master lateral movements -- the area that still gives him a little bit of trouble. Overall, putting full confidence in the knee again is the biggest challenge, something Mbakwe is gaining.
•On his decision to play a sixth year: When Mbakwe watched the NBA draft in late June, he said he felt a twinge of regret. "It was hard ... wishing that was me," he said, "after working so hard last summer and getting into a position where I could get myself in the draft." But now he knows returning to the Gophers was the right thing to do, he said. After discussing his options with coach Tubby Smith and his family, Mbakwe decided he wanted to give the team another season.
"Just being in this spot now, I wouldn't have been ready to play to prepare for the draft or anything," Mbakwe said. "I'm looking forward to the season, being able to play with these guys, actually, for a full year."
•On this year's team, and where he fits in: "I don't know if it's going to change as drastically as some people might think," Mbakwe said. Many of the things the Gophers found to be successful late last season should carry over, he said. The team still wants to run. Williams will probably still play some power forward.
"There will probably be times when I'll have to play [center] and times when I'll play [power forward] -- a lot of our positions are interchangeable in Coach Smith's system," he said. "I was always the type, I like to get up and down, I was never a jogger. ... Once I get back to my old self, I'll be able to sprint. That was one of my advantages, being at [power forward]. I was able to beat my man down the court a lot of times."
And, Mbakwe said, he believes the team would be very good even without him.
"People say they only think of me, but I'm just the backbone," he said. "Rodney and [guard] Andre Hollins, we only go as far as those guys take us."