This is Amelia Rayno's third season on the Gophers men's basketball beat. She learned college basketball in North Carolina (Go Tar Heels!), where fanhood is not an option. In 2010, she joined the Star Tribune after graduating from Boston's Emerson College, which sadly had no exciting D-I college hoops to latch onto. Amelia has also worked on the sports desk at the Boston Globe and interned at the Detroit News.

  Follow Rayno on Twitter @AmeliaRayno

Eliason and others have earned their spots ... but Mbakwe can improve the team.

Posted by: Amelia Rayno under College basketball, Gophers players Updated: November 29, 2012 - 11:33 AM

 

Eliason has played just the way Tubby Smith wants him to.

Eliason has played just the way Tubby Smith wants him to.

 

For people who don’t talk to Gophers coach Tubby Smith on a regular basis, it’s hard to understand why he does what he does all the time.

For example, one of the most common questions I get from Minnesota fans is: “Why isn’t Trevor Mbakwe starting?”

But while I could go on about the delicacies of bringing back a player from a major knee surgery – both physically and mentally -- the answer, as far as I can tell, is actually much more simple:

The Gophers’ current starting center, Elliott Eliason, did plenty to win the job at the end of the year last year and at the start of this season this year … and now, that spot is his to lose.

The truth is, Eliason embodies the kind of player Smith craves – he’s physical enough to battle underneath the basket, he’s fast enough to keep up with the Gophers up-tempo offense, he’s conditioned enough to stick with the press and most of all, he plays with all the heart and energy and hustle you could ask for.

Eliason is a guy whose effort is never questioned, the rare athlete that takes responsibility for his shortcomings and displays incredible self-awareness in interviews. He’ll tell you when he played poorly, and when he shakes his head and tells you how he’s trying to improve daily and get better – well, you believe his passion.

And for Smith, an intensely loyal coach, Eliason has earned his right to be the guy now. Mbakwe – who returned to the team off an injury, and in spite of some off-season drama – will have to earn that all over again too, but it’s not going to be a quick switcheroo just because the big man is back and healthy.

So what happens now? Judging by the attitude I’ve seen from Day 1 from Eliason, that give-it-all mindset isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So does Mbakwe just play off the bench for the rest of the season?

Herein lies the problem: for all of Eliason’s attributes – and there are plenty – Mbakwe is unquestionably more talented. Mbakwe in the starting lineup makes the team better. It’s not a question.

The Gophers have been playing pretty well and winning games. And with the exception of the Richmond and Stanford games, it’s been without Mbakwe – coming off the bench – getting many minutes or making a significant impact. On Tuesday in a big road victory over Florida State, Mbakwe played 19 minutes but had just six points and four rebounds and never really made much of a splash.

But things will change. The Gophers will start conference play in the Big Ten in just over a month, and we are starting to get a fuller look of just how challenging that will be, against the cache of incredible talent.

We saw in the Stanford game what Mbakwe is capable of doing – right now – if he’s given enough chances, and in the right rotation. Playing Mbakwe in a lineup without the Gophers’ best playmakers and athletes diminishes what the sixth-year senior can do – it effectively buries his potential.

Swapping Mbakwe for Eliason in the starting five, however, isn’t the only option the Gophers have to better utilize their frontcourt pieces.

While it hasn’t gotten a ton of looks, Smith has played Mbakwe along with Eliason in certain situations to create a bigger frontcourt. Those two, along with Rodney Williams at small forward and the Hollinses at 1 and 2 makes for a pretty formidable (yet still quick) group.

Of course, that scenario would eliminate Joe Coleman, who has been playing well lately, can be a real scoring threat and is showing improvements in a lot of ways.

If they want to go smaller, Eliason and Mbakwe could platoon, but it’s important, still, that the latter is still played with the right four around him.

In any adjustment, someone in the current five is left out. And maybe that’s not fair. But if this Gophers team is going to continue to be successful, some tough (team-oriented) love might be in order.

ADVERTISEMENT

Chicago Cubs - LP: J. Arrieta 2 FINAL
Cincinnati - WP: D. Axelrod 7
NY Yankees - LP: S. Kelley 2 FINAL
Detroit - WP: P. Coke 3
Colorado - LP: J. Lyles 1 FINAL
San Francisco - WP: Y. Petit 4
Tampa Bay - LP: K. Yates 4 FINAL
Baltimore - WP: A. Miller 5
Atlanta - WP: M. Minor 6 FINAL
NY Mets - LP: J. Niese 1
Cleveland - WP: C. Carrasco 3 FINAL
Chicago WSox - LP: J. Danks 2
Minnesota - WP: A. Swarzak 11 FINAL
Kansas City - LP: B. Chen 5
Texas - LP: R. Mendez 2 FINAL
Houston - WP: C. McHugh 4
Oakland - LP: R. Cook 3 FINAL
LA Angels - WP: F. Salas 4
Atlanta 24 FINAL
Jacksonville 14
Detroit 23 FINAL
Buffalo 0
Indianapolis 7 FINAL
Cincinnati 35
Kansas City 14 FINAL
Green Bay 34
NY Jets 7 FINAL
Philadelphia 37
St. Louis 13 FINAL
Miami 14
Carolina 10 FINAL
Pittsburgh 0
New England 13 FINAL
NY Giants 16
Washington 24 FINAL
Tampa Bay 10
Baltimore 22 FINAL
New Orleans 13
Chicago 13 FINAL
Cleveland 33
Denver 27 FINAL
Dallas 3
Minnesota 19 FINAL
Tennessee 3
San Francisco 40 FINAL
Houston 13
Arizona 9 FINAL
San Diego 12
Seattle 31 FINAL
Oakland 41
(21) Texas A&M 52 FINAL
(9) So Carolina 28
Wake Forest 10 FINAL
ULM 17
Boise State 13 FINAL
(18) Ole Miss 35
Tulane 31 FINAL
Tulsa 38
Rutgers 41 FINAL
Washington St 38
Weber State 14 FINAL
(19) Arizona State 45
Temple 37 FINAL
Vanderbilt 7
BYU 6:00 PM
Connecticut
(6) Jacksonville St 6:30 PM
(8) Michigan State
Bowling Green 6:30 PM
Western Ky
TX-San Antonio 8:00 PM
Houston
Colorado State 8:00 PM
Colorado
UNLV 9:30 PM
Arizona
Penn State 8/30/14 7:30 AM
UCF
Troy 8/30/14 11:00 AM
UAB
(7) UCLA 8/30/14 11:00 AM
Virginia
Western Mich 8/30/14 11:00 AM
Purdue
(5) Ohio State 8/30/14 11:00 AM
Navy
Appalachian St 8/30/14 11:00 AM
Michigan
Ga Southern 8/30/14 11:30 AM
NC State
Boston College 8/30/14 2:00 PM
Massachusetts
West Virginia 8/30/14 2:30 PM
(2) Alabama
Rice 8/30/14 2:30 PM
(17) Notre Dame
(10) South Dakota St 8/30/14 2:30 PM
(24) Missouri
Fla Atlantic 8/30/14 2:30 PM
(22) Nebraska
California 8/30/14 2:30 PM
Northwestern
Marshall 8/30/14 2:30 PM
Miami-Ohio
UC Davis 8/30/14 3:00 PM
(11) Stanford
Arkansas 8/30/14 3:00 PM
(6) Auburn
(16) Clemson 8/30/14 4:30 PM
(12) Georgia
Liberty 8/30/14 5:00 PM
(23) North Carolina
Ohio U 8/30/14 5:00 PM
Kent State
Louisiana Tech 8/30/14 6:00 PM
(4) Oklahoma
Idaho 8/30/14 6:00 PM
Florida
Stephen F Austin 8/30/14 6:10 PM
(20) Kansas State
Fresno State 8/30/14 6:30 PM
(15) USC
Southern Miss 8/30/14 6:30 PM
Miss State
Texas-El Paso 8/30/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico
North Texas 8/30/14 7:00 PM
Texas
(1) Florida State 8/30/14 7:00 PM
Oklahoma State
(14) Wisconsin 8/30/14 8:00 PM
(13) LSU
South Dakota 8/30/14 9:30 PM
(3) Oregon
(25) Washington 8/30/14 9:30 PM
Hawaii
Utah State 8/31/14 6:00 PM
Tennessee
SMU 8/31/14 6:30 PM
(10) Baylor
Miami-Florida 9/1/14 7:00 PM
Louisville
Arizona 9/4/14 7:00 PM
TX-San Antonio
Ottawa 6:30 PM
Montreal
Winnipeg 8/31/14 3:00 PM
Saskatchewan
Toronto 9/1/14 12:00 PM
Hamilton
Edmonton 9/1/14 3:30 PM
Calgary
Brt Columbia 9/5/14 6:30 PM
Ottawa
Calgary 9/6/14 6:00 PM
Edmonton
Hamilton 9/7/14 12:00 PM
Montreal
Saskatchewan 9/7/14 3:00 PM
Winnipeg
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

Date/Opponent Time W L Score
2014 season     
Aug 28 - vs. E. Illinois 6 pmX42-20
Sep 6 - vs. M. Tennessee St. 2:30 pm
Sep 13 - at TCU 3 pm
Sep 20 - vs. San Jose St. TBA
Sep 27 - at Michigan TBA
Oct 11 - vs. Northwestern TBA
Oct 18 - vs. Purdue 11 am
Oct 25 - at Illinois 11 am
Nov 8 - vs. Iowa TBA
Nov 15 - vs. Ohio State TBA
Nov 22 - at Nebraska TBA
Nov 29 - at Wisconsin TBA

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Grade the Gophers in their season opener

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT