Gophers coach Tubby Smith on Thursday gave the strongest indication yet that Trevor Mbakwe, the Gophers senior who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, will return next season.
“I think he wants to be here. That’s the conversation we had yesterday,” Smith said during his first local press conference since the Gophers season ended last week. “I think he’s gearing up to be back, going through rehab. Again, that could change. There are a lot of people he’s probably consulting with.”
The logistics of Mbakwe’s potential return, however, remain unclear. With two incoming freshmen – Wally Ellenson and Charles Buggs – the Gophers would be at their scholarship limit of 13 without accounting for Mbakwe. Smith said the team sent a letter to the NCAA on Thursday to essentially get an extra scholarship for Mbakwe for next season.
The team could hear back from the NCAA by next week. In the mean time, however, a spot could open up by what Smith terms “attrition.” He was planning to meet with players as a group later Thursday, followed soon by individual meetings. Smith said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if one or more players were considering transferring – which would open up a scholarship for Mbakwe and potentially for Arizona State’s Trent Lockett, a talented Hopkins graduate who is expected to transfer.
“You never know what will happen. I could have two or three [players] come to me and say, ‘I’m not happy. … I didn’t play enough minutes,’” Smith said. “They all think they deserve more. And when I tell them they deserve less, that’s where the crossroads is. When we come to the fork in the road – like Yogi Berra said – we’re going to take it.”
Smith also said he expects Rodney Williams to return for his senior season. He added that he remains "confident" his contract extension will get done soon, though he doesn't expect it to happen before a new athletic director is named. That announcement could come in about a month.