Williams, Mbakwe sole Tournament veterans
MAR 19, 2013 2:31p ET
Those two combined minutes make up the entirety of the Gophers' NCAA tournament experience as they head into Friday's matchup with UCLA in the Round of 64.
For Mbakwe, his brief moment under the bright lights of the big dance came in 2008 during his freshman season at Marquette. The St. Paul native didn't play at all in Marquette's first-round win against Kentucky, but got his chance one game later. The Golden Eagles were the No. 6 seed and faced No. 3 seed Stanford in the second round with a shot at the Sweet 16 on the line.
That 2007-08 Marquette squad was led by players such as Wesley Matthews and Lazar Hayward, who are both now in the NBA. Mbakwe was one of 11 Golden Eagles players to step on the court against Stanford. He didn't take a shot, nor did he grab a rebound. He didn't find the stat sheet at all in his one minute of NCAA tournament playing time, which ended with an overtime loss to Brook Lopez and Stanford.
Still, Mbakwe is hoping the lessons he learned by being a part of that tournament team can carry over to his Gophers squad several years later.
"It was a great experience as a freshman," Mbakwe said. "It was a great run. … Just as a freshman, that's huge just getting that experience, knowing what it takes, having veterans, knowing what it takes to win games, especially in key moments."
Williams got an equally small taste of what it's like to play on college basketball's ultimate stage. As a freshman at Minnesota during the 2009-10 season, Williams was part of the 11th-seeded Gophers team that faced No. 6 Xavier in the first round. Just like Mbakwe a few years earlier, Williams didn't find the stat sheet. No points, no rebounds, not even a foul to show for his one minute of play.
The Gophers lost 65-54 to Xavier and failed to make it out of the first round. If you blinked, you missed Williams' lone NCAA tournament experience to this point. Three years later, though, Williams has fond memories of his first and, until Friday, only trip to the big dance.
"I remember it was a lot of fun," Williams said. "I just remember that whole practice when we had all the people watching us and all the media and all the stuff that comes along with it. … It was definitely cool, no matter how much time you get out there. I think just the experience of being there period, it was a really fun time."
Now as fellow seniors, Mbakwe and Williams factor to get far more than a minute each of playing time on Friday for 11th-seeded Minnesota against No. 6 UCLA.
The Gophers duo will be expected to carry the load for Minnesota, just like they've done all season. Mbakwe, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility after tearing his ACL last year, finished this season as the Big Ten's top rebounder, averaging 8.7 boards per game. He was instrumental in Minnesota's upset win over No. 1 Indiana, scoring 21 points and grabbing 12 rebounds.
In a tournament setting like this, the Gophers could use another big game from Mbakwe. But they'll also need him to stay out of foul trouble. In Minnesota's Big Ten tournament game against Illinois, Mbkawe picked up three fouls in the first half of the Gophers' loss to the Illini. That can't happen against UCLA.
"Two fouls, there's nothing I can do about that. And Trevor can't play with three," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said Tuesday. "Once he gets his first, second foul, he's winding down defensively. That's a real problem for us, because then opposing teams just throw it inside on him, and he's going to back off."
Williams was second on the Gophers in rebounding with 5.1 per game and was the team's third-leading scorer, averaging 10.3 points. While he was hampered by a shoulder injury late in the season, Williams said that's no longer a problem heading into the NCAA tournament.
A year ago, Williams elevated his game in the postseason as the Gophers made a run in the NIT tournament. He scored 18 or more points in four of Minnesota's five tournament games en route to the NIT title game.
Like Mbakwe, Williams hopes to play basketball at the next level. A solid NCAA tournament could certainly help his case.
"I know the emotions that he must be feeling," Smith said of Williams. "He has opportunities beyond college basketball, so it's a chance for him to improve his stock, plus leave a legacy because he's had a pretty good career here."
For both Mbakwe and Williams, their single minute of NCAA tournament play was one of the highlights of their respective college basketball careers. Now senior leaders, both have a chance to make their second trip to the big dance even more memorable.
And it should last for longer than one minute.
"This is every college basketball player's dream to get to the NCAA tournament. I'm just happy to be back," Williams said. "I just want to go out there and play as hard as I can. It's win or go home. You just want to go out there and give it your all, because it could be the last one."
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