As the Gophers begins their season Friday night, this shouldn't be viewed as a second chance or third chance for Mbakwe. This is a last chance.
Trevor Mbakwe tweeted earlier this week that he would repay his athletic scholarship this year if the Gophers basketball team does not make the NCAA tournament.
Mbakwe deleted his remark after media outlets reported it and later offered a "no comment" when asked if his offer still stood. He also apologized if his gesture became a temporary distraction to his team.
"It was just me showing how much confidence I have in my teammates," he said.
No need to apologize for that, but here's something we prefer to see from Mbakwe that would be more meaningful than writing a check to cover his scholarship: Be a good citizen and model teammate. Avoid any drama and use the long, hard recovery from ACL surgery as inspiration.
Be the guy we saw cheering wildly on the bench in street clothes last season, except show that same enthusiasm and leadership on the court. Set a positive tone for this team, like he did this week by diving to save a loose ball in an exhibition game against Southwest Baptist.
This season is a gift. Treat it as such. The NCAA granted Mbakwe a sixth season of eligibility, which doesn't happen every day. And a Miami judge and coach Tubby Smith refused to close the door after his DWI arrest and probation violation.
Mbakwe's off-court problems are well-documented and don't need to be rehashed in full here. His college career has resembled a roller-coaster ride with its peaks and valleys and unpredictability.
He begins a new chapter Friday night in the Gophers' season opener. For Mbakwe, this shouldn't be viewed as a second chance or third chance. This is a last chance. He can't rewrite his story, but he can give it a better ending.
"I have great teammates, great coaching staff, great support," he said. "I know they all want the best for me. They want me to succeed. I just have to stay focused and stay on the right track."
Mbakwe can make a career in basketball if he takes advantage of this opportunity. He was a surefire NBA draft pick at power forward before he wrecked his right knee last November. When healthy, he's an elite rebounder, tough defender and high-energy player. He's a brute presence inside and one of the Big Ten's best players when he's at the top of his game.
He's not quite there right now, though. He doesn't begin the season 100 percent physically. He lacks his usual explosiveness off the floor in rebounding, and his quickness has not fully returned, most noticeably around the basket and on defense.
That's not entirely unexpected because he's still less than a year removed from surgery and needs time to regain confidence in his knee, knock some rust off and refamiliarize himself with game tempo. That's a gradual process. Remember, Adrian Peterson is the exception, not the rule.
"I don't think I'm too far away," Mbakwe said. "I've just got to keep working at it. At some point, I'll feel back to my old self."
Smith seems content to bring Mbakwe along slowly. He'll come off the bench initially and probably won't play major minutes until he's further along. Mbakwe said he hasn't experienced any swelling or pain after workouts and that doctors are pleased with his recovery.
That's encouraging news for a team that is expected to advance to the NCAA tournament, at a minimum. This should be Smith's best team at Minnesota, one that's talented and deep enough to win a few games in the tournament. That's a reasonable expectation, even knowing Mbakwe might not return to form until later in the season.
"I think I can be a big piece to how far we go," Mbakwe said. "We want to play our best basketball at the end of the season, and hopefully by then I'm going to be 100 percent."
Smith said he simply hopes Mbakwe can reach his "full potential." That was in reference to his basketball talent but also applies to Mbakwe's life off the court. Mbakwe admittedly has made some poor choices in the past. But he gets another opportunity to redefine his legacy.
"I was lucky [the NCAA] granted me another year," he said. "I feel blessed and thankful and very grateful. I've just got to make the most of it. I have to make the best of my last year here."
That's our hope, too.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org
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