When Trevor Mbakwe collapsed to the court floor in Sunday's Old Spice Classic title game, the Gophers lost their best scorer and their best rebounder. They lost the team captain and emotional leader. They lost, quite bluntly, their intimidation factor.
Forced to pick up the pieces, the Gophers are faced with a harsh reality. With Mbakwe gone for the season, the Gophers have, in many ways, lost their identity. As Mbakwe prepares to sit on the bench because of a torn ACL, the Gophers prepare for a tough game Wednesday against Virginia Tech with a shell of the original starting lineup.
Ralph Sampson III, like Mbakwe a senior co-captain, would be the logical choice to pick up a good share of the slack. But he's hobbled because of an ankle injury and might not be able to play either Wednesday. The Gophers have a thin and inexperienced frontcourt, leaving them with a sudden and shocking need to redefine themselves -- quickly.
"We just won't have that inside presence [we had] with Trevor," coach Tubby Smith said in a more-somber-than-usual news conference Tuesday. "Now we're looking at different types of scenarios that may come up and how we'll role play."
That starts with actually changing some roles. Facing fewer options in the interior, Smith hinted he might opt to go smaller with his lineup. Combo guard Julian Welch, coming off some impressive stretches in the Old Spice Classic, likely will start Wednesday, Smith said.
Welch could play alongside guards Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins -- the latter did not practice Monday after sustaining a bone bruise on his knee in Sunday's game.
Rodney Williams could be moved to power forward, effectively shrinking the team at that position as well. With less need to get the ball inside, the Gophers might focus on athleticism, guard play, shooting more from the outside and running as much as possible.
"I think we're going to change," redshirt freshman forward Oto Osenieks said. "We might go small more with Trevor gone, so we can have more from outside the perimeter."
Center Elliott Eliason, also a redshirt freshman, said he knows he can't try to be the hero, and at times he has gotten in turnover trouble for trying to do too much. But he knows that every player needs to contribute more for Minnesota to stay afloat. And his role as a post player has suddenly become more acute and scrutinized.
"I've just got to step up and play a lot better," he said. "I had a decent game against Indiana State, and then I had a really, really poor game against Dayton. And that just can't happen anymore. I've got to step up and get rebounds and finish around the rim. It has to happen for us to be competitive."
Smith said he realizes he needs to guard against players feeling pressured to single-handedly fill Mbakwe's role and try to play outside their ability. No single player on the Gophers roster can fill the void left by Mbakwe.
Instead, several players will have to carry that responsibility. A lot of things need to change. A lot of roles need to morph and a lot of players need to step up. While Smith said expectations, in his mind, remain as high as ever, it's irrefutable that Wednesday, the Gophers are a completely different team than they were before Mbakwe went down on Sunday. Whether they can rebound remains to be seen, but Smith believes they have the mental tools to try.
"Kids are resilient, they respond a lot easier than we do -- me as an older man, it's hard for me," he said. "They are going to bounce back. It's another day of practice, another game. And that's what I expect them to do."