Big Ten now must brace for Gophersâ€™ Mbakwe
JAN 02, 2013 9:42a ET
MINNEAPOLIS — For nearly two months, the bulky brace on Trevor Mbakwe's right knee served as a visual reminder of the setback he suffered last year and the uphill climb he's had since tearing his ACL.
Whenever the Gophers senior forward took the court, he did so with the brace on his surgically repaired right knee. At times, especially early on, it looked as if the apparatus slowed Mbakwe. Steadily, though, Minnesota's leading rebounder and senior leader appeared to grow more comfortable with not only the brace but also with his knee, the one that gave out in a game against Dayton last year and forced Mbakwe to miss the remainder of the season.
Finally, on Monday, Mbakwe was able to do away with the knee brace for the first time all year — just in time for the Big Ten opener against Michigan State.
Without the brace, and against the No. 19 Spartans, Mbakwe recorded his third double-double of the season, scoring 11 points and grabbing a game-high 12 rebounds to help the ninth-ranked Gophers open Big Ten play with a 76-63 win.
"I was glad that Trevor was able to play (without the brace)," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. "He's been doing it in practice. He was a little hesitant in practice, but today he looked like he was going to let it go. He is feeling more confident and obviously his knee's stronger."
Mbakwe had his hands full Monday defensively, as he was tasked with guarding 6-foot-9, 270-pound Spartans center Derrick Nix. Mbakwe is listed at 6-foot-8, 245 pounds and gave up 25 pounds to the MSU senior.
Even so, Mbakwe seemed to win that battle, showing off the physicality that helped him lead the Big Ten in rebounding as a junior. Nix was held to 10 points and matched a season low with just four rebounds. He also picked up four fouls in the Spartans' loss.
"I'm glad we won't see them for a while. Nix is a big guy," Mbakwe said. "We knew we had our hands full with him. … I think we ended up beating them in rebounding. That was one of our goals coming into the game. He's a big guy."
Mbakwe seems to be growing tired of answering questions about his knee, but the questions will continue to be asked. To him, though, the injury is an afterthought, especially now that he's done away with the knee brace.
Monday's game against MSU came one year and one day after Mbakwe's reconstructive surgery — which happened to be the same day Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson had the same surgery on his torn ACL.
"It went by fast. I forgot that it was almost a year ago," Mbakwe said before Monday's game. "A lot has changed. I've matured more as a player on and off the court, and it made me appreciate the situation I'm in so much more. Basketball can be taken away from me any day, and it made me more grateful."
On Sunday, Peterson rushed for 199 yards and single-handedly carried the Vikings into the playoffs with a win over rival Green Bay. Mbakwe — like anyone else who has watched the Vikings' star running back this year — has continued to be impressed by Peterson, who has become a poster child for fast ACL recovery.
Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio is also in the club with Mbakwe and Peterson of local athletes who suffered an ACL injury last year. Like those two, he's also slowly returning from his surgery after missing the beginning of the season.
Mbakwe has had the chance to meet Rubio a few times, and meeting Peterson is still on his wish list.
"We're trying to set something up with me and Adrian Peterson," Mbakwe said. "He's been definitely an inspiration and a role model for me."
Just like Peterson has proven he's fully healthy after the major knee surgery -- he nearly set the NFL record for most rushing yards in a season – so, too, has Mbakwe. He had the chance to prove it Monday against a Michigan State team that has routinely beaten the Gophers in years past.
Having Mbakwe back to his old self will be key for Minnesota moving forward. So far, it's resulted in a 1-0 Big Ten record.
"Any time you can have Trevor out there at full health, you know it's going to be trouble for the other team," Gophers senior Rodney Williams said." It was big for us to have him out there. He was a monster on the boards again, coming over and helping out on the help defense to get blocks or just to alter shots.
"In order for us to win, we're going to need that from Trevor all the time."
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