One of the trendiest subjects lately has been the topic of Trevor Mbakwe touching the ball. Is he getting enough touches? Is he getting them where he can use them? How can he get more?

But to answer those questions, it’s imperative to answer another question: just how many touches is he getting?

To find out that answer, I went through tape of the last four games and tracked all of Mbakwe’s offensive touches and where they occurred, as well as the touches of the other starters except for Andre Hollins (who will naturally touch the ball the most as the point guard), for comparison.

There are two things we expect to find right off the bat:

1) That the guards will certainly get more touches that Mbakwe, or any forward, for that matter – and that Rodney Williams will probably have more as well because of his tendency to play guard-like and on the wing.

2) That the majority of Mbakwe’s touches will be in or around the paint, because that is the zone that allows him to be productive from a scoring aspect.

Let’s look at what I found for the first three games that I tracked initially:

Against Nebraska …

Austin Hollins: 38 touches
Joe Coleman: 44 touches
Rodney Williams: 36 touches
Trevor Mbakwe: 24 touches (4 in the paint, 8 near the paint, two offensive rebounds and the rest around the perimeter)

Against Iowa …

Austin Hollins: 46 touches
Joe Coleman: 41 touches
Rodney Williams: 38 touches
Trevor Mbakwe 21 touches (5 in the paint, 5 near the paint, 1 offensive rebound and the rest around the perimeter)

At Michigan State …

Austin Hollins : 49 touches
Joe Coleman: 39 touches
Rodney Williams: 30 touches
Trevor Mbakwe: 23 touches (2 in the paint, 4 near the paint, 4 offensive rebounds and the rest were around the perimeter)

That means, in those three games, the players had the following percentages of the non-Andre-starter touches or the NAST(y) as I’m going to call it. (You follow? The other four starters’ touches add up to 100 percent and they break down like this):

Austin Hollins: 133 total touches, or 31 percent of the NAST(y).
Joe Coleman: 124 total touches, or 28.9 percent of the NAST(y).
Rodney Williams: 104 touches, or 24.2 percent of the NAST(y).
Trevor Mbakwe: 68 touches, or 15.8 percent of the NAST(y).

Now, to go back to the things we expected to find above:

1) Certainly, as we predicted, Mbakwe has fewer touches than anyone else. But what caught me by surprise was the very large discrepancy by which this is true. That Mbakwe – arguably the team’s best player and one of the best proven scorers – is only touching the ball 15.8 percent of the NAST(y) time is, to me, kind of egregious. Mbakwe is one of the Gophers’ greatest strengths. This proves what we all expected: that he is being underutilized.

2) Next, we look at where he got his touches. This realization is even more stunning. Only 28 of Mbakwe’s touches in those three games came in or near the paint, meaning that just 41 percent of his already low NAST(y) were inside his scoring zone. If we use only that number to compare, Mbakwe’s score-able touches (based on location only) account for just 6.5 percent of the NAST(y). Whoa.

Now, for Sunday’s game, because it was a little bit different. To start with, Elliott Eliason stepped in at center with Rodney Williams out with a tweaked left shoulder.

Plus, it was pretty clear early that there was a game plan to aggressively get the ball to Mbakwe. Part of that was because with Mbakwe playing more like a power forward, his role was a little bit different and part of that was because Eliason did a really good job of feeding him in the post.

In any case, it worked out, especially early. Here’s how the NAST(y) played out:

Austin Hollins: 48 touches or 29.8 percent of the NAST(y)
Joe Coleman: 47 touches or 29.1 percent of the NAST(y)
Elliott Eliason: 31 touches or 19 percent of the NAST(y)
Trevor Mbakwe: 35 touches or 21.7 percent of the NAST(y)

Mbakwe hasn’t come close to getting that many touches in the previous three games, and the percentage is much more respectable and closer to where I would expect it to be as well. But the biggest and most meaningful change is probably the fact that 17 of those came in or around the paint.

Mbakwe responded with a 13-point, 10-point performance, scoring in double digits for the first time in five games.

But he can do more.

Illinois started double-teaming Mbakwe in the second half and was able to cause a few turnovers that way and significantly limit his production. Unfortunately for the Gophers, they went aggressive in this strategy on a night where the guards couldn’t sink a shot and therefore didn’t force the defense to stay balanced.

Even so, Mbakwe will be double-teamed at times and needs to learn to break out of the trap. The Gophers didn’t seem to have a plan for that: Mbakwe looked helpless and no one else did a good job of getting in a spot to accept a pass – so that is an area that could certainly be improved.

My final note would be that I think Mbakwe operated very well with Eliason in the lineup and back in his natural position.

Would it be a terrible thing to experiment with a starting lineup that features Eliason at center, Mbakwe at power forward, Williams at the small forward and Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins manning the guard spot?

Considering Smith’s high praise of Eliason afterward, I wouldn’t be surprised if he inserts the big man back into the starting five. The other option, of course, would be to bring ailing Rodney Williams off the bench for at least one more game.

*As a slightly unrelated but relevant note, I was surprised at the number of touches Coleman is getting. I expected him to get the second most after Austin Hollins, but that he is basically on Hollins’ heels surprised me. Coleman scored 21 percent of the NASP (Non-Andre starters points) on 29 percent of the touches, while Austin Hollins scored 36.7 percent of the NASP on 30.6 percent of the touches in the games I tracked.