As Rodney Williams left the court on senior day, the last of the Gophers’ four seniors to get his late exit and standing ovation, he put his arms around coach Tubby Smith and then went right to Trevor Mbakwe, who stood waiting to embrace the teammate with whom he has been through so much.
The pair hugged, Mbakwe placing his massive paw on top of Williams’ head, and took their places on the bench for the remainder of the 73-44 victory over Penn State. When the game was over, they shook a few hands and quietly filed into the locker room.
There were no dramatics. No tears during the halftime ceremonies and no kissing the court. Perhaps that’s because both Williams and Mbakwe know there is work to be done, that if senior day was the peak, the Gophers will be in trouble and any future careers of theirs in doubt.
With that sentiment in mind, two games later — the day after the Gophers lost at Purdue, which had followed a loss at Nebraska — Mbakwe sent Williams a text message.
“I just told him, this is the end of it,” Mbakwe said.
The back-and-forth turned into a long and somewhat emotional text conversation — which was kept to just that, because, well, Mbakwe and Williams’ free minutes for calling didn’t kick in until 7 p.m. that night.
As they head into the Big Ten tournament as the elder statesmen of the Gophers’ starting five, they know they won’t be college kids worrying about cellphone minutes much longer.
But where Mbakwe and Williams go beyond that, and on what note they leave, could be significantly impacted by what they and the Gophers do in the postseason. Their final push begins when they face Illinois on Thursday morning in Chicago.
Though an NCAA tournament berth should follow no matter what happens Thursday, this sentiment lingers regardless: Can the Gophers pull together a season that has drifted far away from where it started, and finish on a strong note? Or will a team that has been called one of the most disappointing teams in the country continue to fade away quietly?
“This is it for us,” Mbakwe said. “Being hometown kids, and how much it means just to be able to walk around and [have fans] being proud of you. ... Regardless of if we win or not, we only have a few more weeks here to be able to put the Gopher jersey on, and we know it’s going to be big for us. We don’t want to end our career like that, being a team that underachieved.”
They don’t want that label on themselves, either. Both came to the Gophers with great expectations and clear talent, and soon both were projected to eventually be drafted in the NBA. But Mbakwe’s college career was interrupted by injury and marred by legal trouble, and Williams’ career is one that has seen great highlights but also stretches where he seems to disappear, often looked at as one that never saw the athletic forward claim his full potential.
While Mbakwe and Williams have been among the team’s headliners, Smith has grown frustrated with both of them, and seems to have given up on either of them becoming the leaders that this Gophers team has at times lacked.
“I’d like to see it,” said Smith, noting that he has tried for four years to unlock Williams’ promise. “I think they’re trying. I think they’re giving us their best effort. It is what it is. I don’t think they haven’t tried to play better. It’s just — we all have limitations. And at this point in time, you’ve got to overachieve. If they’re willing to overachieve, we’ll have a good run.”
Williams said he feels the pressure, but he has tried not to let it bog him down to the point of where he becomes paralyzed on the court, as it has at times in his four years at Minnesota. At the same time, the chance for him to make a statement, on a couple of big stages, is impossible to ignore.
“We talked about this is pretty much going to be where we make our money at,” he said. “There’s a burden. But I can’t let that get to me.”
But it’s now or never for the seniors, a sentiment that applies to the roster as a whole. The finality is inevitable — the season will end, Williams and Mbakwe will move on and the Gophers will disperse for the summer.
The content of the text messages that follow can be decided in the next two weeks.