At 6-10 and hovering near 300 pounds, Gophers forward Maurice (Mo) Walker always has known he possessed great brawn and power. But in the past 22 months, while sitting on the bench, he found a new test of strength.
"I found out I was stronger than I thought I was, going through this injury and rehabbing constantly the way I've been doing," Walker said.
It's been a long road back for the Scarborough, Ontario, native. Walker joined the team before the 2010-11 season. But after tearing the posterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee in December of that year, then missing all of last season because of complications, Walker is a nearly-21-year-old redshirt sophomore who has fewer than three months of collegiate experience.
He also could be the Gophers' X-factor this season.
Despite his limited role so far, Walker's success could substantially impact the Gophers' progress. He adds stability and depth to the frontcourt, and bulk to a team on the small side. But more than that, Walker contributes a unique skill set the Gophers don't really have otherwise.
"It's a different scouting report when he comes in because you really have to guard him," said broadcaster and former Gophers player Quincy Lewis. "Mo gives them probably the only true low-post scorer as far as the person who has great touch around the basket, can make moves, can pass [out of] a double-team and can even step outside and shoot the 15-footer."
Coming back with Mbakwe
Walker's comeback has been often overshadowed by that of forward Trevor Mbakwe, another player returning from a knee injury. But Walker should have plenty of chances to show his own worth, particularly early in the season, with the Gophers trying to ease Mbakwe back into a larger role.
"I feel like we have a chance to be really good inside, probably one of the best teams in the Big Ten inside," Walker said. "Trevor's a great player -- everybody knows Trevor is a great player, and I'm just excited to get out there and show what I can do along with him."
It's the "along with him" part that makes his return especially exciting.
A year ago, the Gophers frontcourt was a liability at times. Even at the end of the season, when the Gophers were rolling through the NIT, they were reminded of that when Ralph Sampson III went down because of a knee injury. Against physical Stanford in the championship game, the team lacked options, Lewis pointed out, after then-freshman center Elliott Eliason was fatigued.
This year is a different story. With both Walker and Mbakwe returning, the frontcourt becomes a strength, something Eliason said he's been reminded of during rough early practices.
"Shoot, it's good in the fact that it gets you better but man, it's tough, getting in there and battling all day in practice," Eliason said. "I've gotten a few bumps and bruises, but I think I give a few back so it's all good."
For Walker to stay in the mix, however, it will be critical for him to continue to lose weight and work into shape, something that has been a concern with the big man since he arrived in Minnesota. As of a few weeks ago at media day, he weighed 295 pounds -- about 15 heavier than the Gophers would like him to be.
Walker -- who was capable of returning from his knee problems around the season's midpoint last year, but wound up redshirting -- also rolled an ankle during a practice, while the Gophers were in the NIT. Extra pounds could make Walker more susceptible to injuries going forward, not to mention slow down an athletic lineup.
"The biggest thing is: Is he going to be in shape?" Lewis said. "He can't be the person they're always waiting on to get into the offense."
Walker is happy he won't be waiting along the sideline anymore, but he knows there's more to do.
"He's very capable of stepping in and starting, but he still has a way to go," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. "He's got to continue to watch his weight and trim down and do the things that make him more effective. He'll be effective giving us minutes off the bench. If he's going to earn more minutes, he's going to have to get better and get in better shape."