For most fans, Trevor Mbakwe in the starting lineup was a certainty from the day he announced he was returning for a sixth season, although most expected it wouldn't take this long.
But in the last game before rugged Big Ten play begins, the sure thing seemed to win out, with Mbakwe replacing center Elliott Eliason -- who didn't play at all -- and starting for the first time this season as the 13th-ranked Gophers men's basketball team cruised past Lafayette 75-50 on Saturday at Williams Arena.
Still, coach Tubby Smith wasn't ready to commit to keeping the same starting five for the conference opener against Michigan State on New Year's Eve.
"I think we looked a little winded, and so I wasn't very impressed with it at first," Smith said of the first group. "We'll continue to evaluate. Like I said tonight, I wasn't impressed with the start of the game, so we'll see."
One game after scoring 14 points and grabbing a career-high 18 rebounds in 21 minutes off the bench, Mbakwe wasn't a critical factor in Saturday's victory, finishing with five points and four rebounds and sitting for most of the second half after getting five stitches over his right eye. But with the team's deep offensive balance starting to click after a sluggish start, a hero's performance wasn't needed this time.
Joe Coleman led the way with 12 points, showing off his athleticism with four dunks to keep the announced crowd of 14,625 going, and added two steals and four rebounds. Reserve Oto Osenieks had his best performance of the season, tying a career high with 10 points and four rebounds.
The Gophers (12-1) started the game going 1-for-7 from the field, as they looked flustered against Lafayette's 2-3 zone. But after falling behind 6-4, they rebounded to go on a 10-0 run fueled by two three-pointers, one each from Andre Hollins and Maverick Ahanmisi. They also got a big boost from Osenieks, who has struggled this season. He had seven points -- including a three-pointer and a dunk -- with two rebounds in the first half.
Freshman Wally Ellenson, whose redshirt was pulled in the Gophers' previous game against North Dakota State, didn't play in the first half, but he finished with five points -- a dunk and three-pointer -- and four rebounds.
"That's why we're such a good team -- because we have a long bench," Osenieks said. "Anybody can come in and step up and even do it better than the first guys."
Mbakwe scored his first bucket as a starter this season on a midrange jumper with 8:53 left in the first half and did all of his scoring before the break. He left shortly after starting the second half when he was hit in the face.
But even with the big man gone, Smith didn't play Eliason, calling it a "coach's decision" that he didn't care to elaborate on, saying he "wanted to make sure he understood some things." Instead, the coach opted to play Andre Ingram and Mo Walker extended minutes.
"We were surprised," Rodney Williams said. "But who plays is up to the coaches. We don't have any control over that, but we know Elliott is going to be ready whenever he's in the game, and he was the loudest guy cheering on the bench tonight, too."
Mbakwe hadn't started since Nov. 27 of last year, when he tore his right ACL in a game against Dayton. This season, Smith -- clearly buoyed by the chemistry of the successful starting five from last year's NIT run -- kept that lineup intact until Saturday.
"It was a long time and some of the guys joked about it, but it felt good," Mbakwe said.