Through Wednesday's game against the Red Sox, Justin Morneau was not only leading the American League in hitting with a .365 batting average but he also was off to his best start in three years in most every hitting category.

The Twins first baseman entered Thursday's game against Boston with 11 home runs, 29 RBI, a league-leading .482 on-base percentage and a league-leading .686 slugging percentage.

A year ago at this time, Morneau was hitting .338 (eighth in the league) with 12 home runs and 33 RBI. He was seventh in on-base percentage (.410) and third in slugging percentage (.649).

One big reason for the improvement, especially in batting average and on-base percentage, is Morneau's selectivity at the plate. Entering Thursday, he ranked second in the AL with 31 walks.

There is no doubt Morneau is a lot more patient at the plate and is forcing opposing pitchers to throw more strikes.

"Right now I'm trying to be patient, take what they give me and not make something out of an at-bat that isn't there," Morneau said recently. "With [Michael] Cuddyer, [Jim] Thome, [Delmon] Young and all of those guys in the lineup hitting behind me, I feel if I get on base they can hit a home run just as easily as me swinging at a bad pitch and blooping something in."

In addition to his great hitting, Morneau without a doubt is one of the best fielding first basemen in the American League.

Mbakwe to return?

Gophers men's basketball coach Tubby Smith said he is convinced forward Trevor Mbakwe will be with the team in the 2010-11 season, providing is he isn't found guilty of the felony assault charge he is facing in Miami. Mbawke, who was suspended indefinitely because of the charge and didn't play this past season, is scheduled to go to trial in Miami on June 7.

Concerned his trial could be further delayed and affect his playing status for the upcoming season, Mbakwe asked for his release. But Smith said "it was a temporary request," and he expects Mbakwe to remain in school and not transfer.

Athletic director Joel Maturi has given Mbakwe permission to explore a transfer.

No doubt Mbakwe is upset with Maturi's decision to suspend him even though other schools have allowed athletes to play despite future court appearances hanging over their head.

I, for one, have felt that Maturi has done a good job as Gophers athletic director. But in the case of Mbakwe, I believe he should have been allowed to play this past season. Other schools, such as UCLA and Tennessee, allowed players to compete even though they were facing charges. The theory: A person is innocent until proven guilty.

There is some question how much eligibility Mbakwe would have left if he transferred from Minnesota. He already has spent a year at Marquette, a season with Miami Dade College and an inactive year with the Gophers.

Unless he received a waiver from the NCAA, Mbakwe would have to sit out a year as a transfer in order to play at another Division I school. That would allow him only one year of eligibility. With a waiver, he would have two years of eligibility remaining.

Smith hinted that he believes some schools are tampering with Mbakwe and trying to get him to ask the NCAA for a waiver.

No doubt Mbakwe's presence next season could make the difference between the Gophers being a Big Ten title contender or being a middle-of-the-pack team.

U gains in academics

Gophers athletes posted their highest aggregate Academic Progress Rate (APR) in the sixth round of the NCAA APR totals, the university announced Thursday.

According to an announcement by the athletic department, the Gophers had an aggregate score of 979.9, and 21 of Minnesota's 25 teams recorded scores higher than 965 during the 2008-09 school year, becoming what the NCAA considers "high performing teams."

The biggest surprise might be the fact that Gophers football (968), men's basketball (981) and men's hockey (990) were consider "high performing.''

Women's basketball and women's hockey had 1,000 rankings while women's volley ball came in with 978.

The football team posted an impressive 81-point improvement compared with the last report. Other sports showing big improvements included men's tennis (plus-45), men's golf (plus-29) wrestling (plus-14) and women's basketball (plus-21).

The APR system, which the NCAA began in 2005, is used to provide a "real-time snapshot'' of each team's academic performance. Teams that fail to maintain a minimum APR of 925 can lose scholarships.


• Except for some single tickets that are on sale under a new policy, all nine games of the Twins' homestand that begins Friday against Milwaukee are sold out. ... Also, tickets to the Twins' autograph party on June 12th sold out last week. All Twins players, with the exception of that day's starting pitcher and several alumni will take part.

• Look for Gophers wrestling coach J Robinson to sign his first multiyear contract in some 10 years now that Maturi said the wrestling program has been cleared of any NCAA violations concerning real estate holdings by coaches and athletes. Robinson has been operating on a year-by-year basis with the same contract except for raises given to athletic department employees.

• Maturi also added that he is working on a contract for baseball coach John Anderson, who also is without a multiyear deal.

• Darren Sharper played a big part in the Saints' run to the Super Bowl title by intercepting nine passes and returning three for touchdowns in the regular season. But the best contract the free agent safety could get was with the Saints. It calls for a $1.5 million base salary with a $1 million roster bonus and only $250,000 guaranteed. So the most Sharper could earn this coming season is $2.575 million after a banner season.

• According to the website, ultrarunner Scott Jurek of Kenyon, Minn., finished second in the 24-Hour World Cup in Brive-la-Gaillarde, France. Jurek, competing in the international competition for maximum distance over a closed course, ran 165.7 miles and set an American record for such a race. He beat the 9-year-old mark set by Mark Godale.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. •