LOS ANGELES - After the Gophers' 71-57 win over USC on Saturday night -- a victory that was highlighted by a critical 12-point, four-rebound, three-assist performance off the bench by Trevor Mbakwe -- the sixth-year senior stood outside the visitors' locker room, once again answering questions about his health and his slow but steady return to form.
A reporter asked Mbakwe whether he thought he was still a hair away from 100 percent, just as coach Tubby Smith was walking toward the group.
"No, I think I'm 100 percent now," Mbakwe said, leaning in jokingly but purposely toward his passing coach.
Smith laughed, as did Mbakwe and the reporters, but the reality is that the forward is still grinding through the long journey from last year's season-ending knee injury to reproving himself, not only to his team, but to the nation and to NBA scouts he hopes will help him get drafted next year.
Until this point, the forward has been holding back -- saying he's almost there, maybe 90 percent, but not quite "himself." The statistics have bolstered that statement. While Mbakwe has shown flashes throughout the Gophers' 10-1 start, he has been largely inconsistent.
Smith has shown no signs of moving him back to the starting lineup from his current role in reserve -- citing that he likes the chemistry of the current starting five -- and before Saturday, Mbakwe was averaging 17.2 minutes a game.
But in matchups against teams such as USC, Mbakwe -- who should be able to play without his brace within a month -- showed again how valuable he is to this team.
Going against 7-2 center Omar Oraby, the Gophers were undersized at the tipoff. But it was Mbakwe whom Smith clearly trusted to battle down low and be a presence in the paint. And the forward didn't disappoint.
"We couldn't handle the big guy inside; he was giving us all kinds of problems," Smith said. "But Trevor gave us, I thought, the best chance against him."
The best chance while also not compromising the athleticism and quickness that have become identity mainstays of this squad. Mbakwe played 26 minutes off the bench while backup big man Mo Walker -- a talented and big but slower option -- didn't play at all.
What's more, Mbakwe got a lot of minutes with the starters on Saturday, a lineup that seems to maximize his potential and allow him and Rodney Williams to effectively play off each other.
"Me and Rodney have been playing with each other for four years now," Mbakwe said. "I think we kind of know what to expect from each other and where each other is going to be and we kind of feed off each other. We haven't played as much together this year, but we're starting to play more. We're very comfortable with one another."
As for Mbakwe, he looked to be finishing around the basket about as good as in any game this season. He was manhandled at times by Oraby -- who knocked him down twice -- but the Minneapolis native held his own in the paint. Mbakwe also got to the line six times, making all of those shots.
"That was definitely a struggle for us," Williams said. "You saw the big man get going a little bit in the second half, but we'll probably face teams like that later on in the season, so that's good for us to go in and get beat up a little bit by some 7-footers. ... It's good to get the practice in."
As for Mbakwe, he will be a key in those future Big Ten matchups, where there will be plenty of big opponents. And regardless of his role -- which is not what Mbakwe or most outsiders thought it would be at this point of the season -- his presence alongside Williams needs to be felt for the Gophers to be successful.
"They're some of the most athletic big men in the nation," point guard Andre Hollins said of Mbakwe and Williams. "It's definitely easy for us to get out on the break because we know they're going to grab the rebounds, they're going to create tough shots for the opponent's team. It's definitely a big plus having those two in the game at the same time."