Off the court and on, Mbakwe has a lot to prove
OCT 15, 2012 5:00a ET
Mbakwe tore his ACL during Minnesota's game against Dayton last season, missing all but seven games as a result of the injury. He was granted a medical redshirt and a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, meaning Mbakwe is back for the Gophers for the 2012-13 season.
Off-court issues have already marred his return, however. Mbakwe was arrested in July for a DWI and pled guilty at a hearing in September. Gophers coach Tubby Smith said he came close to kicking Mbakwe off the team after the arrest, but he gave the senior one more chance. Smith said Friday that Mbakwe still hasn't done everything necessary to be eligible to rejoin the team after he was suspended following his arrest.
When the 6-foot-8, 245-pound Mbakwe does return, he'll likely be the best player on a Gophers team that is hoping to build on last year's deep run in the NIT Tournament. Mbakwe wasn't a part of that tournament run that saw Minnesota advance to the NIT championship game. With Mbakwe back — and presumably healthy — the Gophers figure to have a shot at an NCAA Tournament berth.
"It's probably the deepest team we've had," Mbakwe said Friday at the team's media day. "This year, we definitely have the talent and the depth to compete. I think that's going to be one of our strengths this year."
Mbakwe led the Big Ten in rebounding during his junior year, grabbing 10.5 boards per game during the 2010-11 season. He also scored 13.9 points per game that year, becoming the first Gopher since Kris Humphries in 2003-04 to average a double-double in a season. After that season, Mbakwe opted to return for what he thought was going to be his senior year instead of turning pro. Now, he has work to do to show his knee is not a problem and that he can produce at that same high level.
Before he suffered the torn ACL against Dayton, Mbakwe was averaging 14 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. As the Gophers now return to practices in preparation for the regular-season opener on Nov. 9, Mbakwe said he's fully recovered from the knee injury, which occurred Nov. 24 of last year.
"No limitations. I'm full go now," Mbakwe said. "I've been playing open gym with the guys the last couple weeks. I finally got fully cleared. I'm excited. The knee's been doing great."
Mbakwe isn't the only star athlete in the Twin Cities to have recently suffered a torn ACL. Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio's promising rookie year was cut short when he tore his ACL in March. Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson tore his ACL in a game against Washington in December.
Peterson was not only able to be on the field for the Vikings' first regular-season game this year early last month, but he scored two touchdowns in Minnesota's win over Jacksonville. Mbakwe has taken notice of Peterson's quick recovery from the injury the two stars both endured.
"His first game of the season, I was so excited to see him, the way he responded," Mbakwe said of Peterson. "He's a beast and he's one of a kind. It was definitely inspiring for me to see the way he's been playing as of late and hopefully he continues his success."
There have been talks of Mbakwe coming off the bench for the Gophers, at least early on. The reason, however, remains unclear. It could be to ease Mbakwe back into action after missing almost all of last season. Or, it could be for disciplinary reasons for Mbakwe's DWI this summer.
Whatever the reason, Mbakwe said he wouldn't have a problem coming off the bench as a sixth-year senior.
"I'm expecting to come off the bench to start the season," Mbakwe said. "I trust Coach. I know he knows what's best for the team. I don't think starting's really that big of a deal to me, honestly, as long as we're winning games. If I have to come off the bench, that's perfectly fine with me as long as I'm helping this team win."
When Mbakwe is back, there's a chance he may see more time at center, with fellow senior Rodney Williams playing the power forward. But Minnesota has other options at center, including 6-foot-10 Maurice Walker and 6-foot-11 Elliott Eliason, both redshirt sophomores.
Whatever position Mbakwe plays, he'll no doubt be a force again for the Gophers. As eager as Mbakwe is to get back on the court after missing almost all of last year, his teammates are equally excited to see him back for one more season.
"It's great. He's a force inside. Everybody knows that," Eliason said of Mbakwe. "His rebounding and his point production are awesome, as well as having him as a shot blocker down low on defense. It's awesome to have him back. I'm glad he's back. I think he's going to do great things for us this year."
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