When No. 8 Minnesota meets No. 5 Indiana, all eyes will be on Trevor Mbakwe and Cody Zeller.
By TYLER MASONFS North
MINNEAPOLIS — Trevor Mbakwe heard the rumors just like everyone else did. After Minnesota's convincing win over No. 12 Illinois on Wednesday, word was going around that Mbakwe broke his hand.
It would have been a devastating blow for Mbakwe and the Gophers — if it were true.
"That was news to me," Mbakwe said Friday. "I woke up the next day, and I got tweets that said, 'How's your broken hand? Someone reported your hand was broken.' I looked at (my hand) and I said, 'It looks fine to me.' "
Mbakwe said he jammed a finger before Wednesday's game against Illinois, but it clearly didn't have much of an impact on his play. The Gophers big man scored 19 points and grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds to help eighth-ranked Minnesota get an 84-67 road win over the Fighting Illini.
Now the test gets tougher for both Mbakwe and the Gophers as they head to Bloomington, Ind., to take on the No. 5 Hoosiers.
Indiana's roster is filled with some of the top players in the Big Ten, none better than Cody Zeller. The 7-foot sophomore was picked as the national player of the year by many media outlets and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, decked in red-and-white striped Hoosiers pants. He's a consensus lottery pick in the NBA Draft, possibly even the No. 1 overall choice.
Mbakwe will be tasked with trying to limit Zeller's production, which few players in the country have been able to do this year. But Mbakwe has gone against the Big Ten's elite in the past. Saturday is just the latest test for the Gophers' fifth-year senior, who didn't face Zeller last year after he tore an ACL prior to the conference season.
"I think we're going to cancel each other out pretty well," Mbakwe said of Zeller. "I'm just looking forward to the challenge of playing Indiana as a whole."
At 6-foot-8, Mbakwe gives up four inches to Zeller, but their stats are very similar. Mbakwe leads the Big Ten in offensive rebounds (3.0 per game), while Zeller is third (2.7). Both average 7.9 rebounds per game. And Mbakwe's 1.4 blocked shots per game are slightly more than Zeller's 1.3. The big difference is Zeller's 16.5 points per game to Mbakwe's 9.3.
"Obviously he's a great player, so he's going to get what he gets," Mbakwe said. "But just try to affect him as much as I can and kind of disrupt the offense a little bit. It's a big challenge for myself, and I'm up for it."
Minnesota has already proven its legitimacy as one of the Big Ten's best teams with Wednesday's win at Illinois. The Gophers also beat then-No. 18 Michigan State in the Big Ten opener on Dec. 31 and handled Northwestern at home. Now 3-0 in conference play, the only thing standing in the way of Minnesota improving to 4-0 is the nation's top-scoring offense.
The Hoosiers are averaging 87.0 points per game. Five players are averaging in double figures, led by Zeller's 16.5. Indiana is also one of the top rebounding teams, grabbing 41.9 boards per game. The Hoosiers' lone slip-up this season was an 88-86 overtime loss to Butler on a neutral court that cost them their No. 1 ranking.
Rankings didn't seem to matter the last time these two teams played at Assembly Hall. Without an injured Mbakwe, Minnesota upset the No. 8 team in the country, 77-74. Making the win even more unexpected was the fact that the Gophers were on the heels of a four-game losing streak to start Big Ten play. Zeller scored 23 points in the loss, while Austin Hollins led Minnesota with 18 points.
Now that the Gophers visit as a top 10 team, it's sure to become an even more boisterous environment at Assembly Hall.
"I was just like, 'God, they're so loud.' I think it's one of the best atmospheres in the nation," said sophomore point guard Andre Hollins, who leads Minnesota in scoring this season but had just three points in that win against Indiana a year ago. "They're definitely very loud. They're rowdy. It's going to be tough. … We just have to come in and stay focused and composed and execute."
After Saturday's game against Indiana, Minnesota will return home to host the Michigan Wolverines, currently the No. 2 team in the nation. It's as tough a three-game stretch as the Gophers will have this season.
"The Big Ten is obviously outstanding this year," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. "We know we've got to play a lot better than we did against Illinois to have any chance at all."