Minnesota loses Mbakwe for season to knee tear

Minnesota has an unfortunate habit of losing important players

to injuries and off-the-court issues since coach Tubby Smith took

over.

This hit to their NCAA tournament hopes was the most devastating

of all: Star power forward Trevor Mbakwe will miss the rest of the

season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right

knee, robbing the Gophers of their top scorer, rebounder and

leader.

Mbakwe’s knee bent awkwardly when he was fighting for rebound

position in Sunday’s loss to Dayton during the championship game of

the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla. Mbakwe left the arena in

tears and on crutches, and on Monday the university confirmed the

worst-case diagnosis from team Dr. Brad Nelson.

Mbakwe, a senior, will have surgery to repair the injury

sometime in the next few weeks.

”Lord please get me through this,” Mbakwe posted on his

Twitter feed on Sunday night, before an MRI test confirmed the ACL

tear. In a statement distributed by the school on Monday, Mbakwe

said he and his family ”would like to thank everyone for their

support.”

The Gophers (6-1) were unavailable for comment on Monday. They

host Virginia Tech on Wednesday.

”Trevor’s done everything we’ve asked him to do in his time

here at the University of Minnesota. He’s been through an awful

lot,” Smith said in a prepared statement. ”That says a lot about

his toughness to be able to recover from the things he has already

endured.”

Mbakwe’s freshman season at Marquette ended early because of a

different knee injury. He played at Miami-Dade Community College

the next year, finding trouble off the court when a woman accused

him of felony battery for allegedly punching her in the face.

The case dragged on for a year, and he eventually entered a

pretrial program though the agreement was not considered an

admission of guilt. Mbakwe blamed the charge on mistaken

identity.

But he had to sit out and take a redshirt the 2009-10 season

with his legal status uncertain. Then with his powerful potential

finally unfolding, Mbakwe was arrested last January for an alleged

violation of a restraining order for sending a greeting on Facebook

to a former girlfriend.

Smith took him out of the starting lineup for three games, but

he avoided suspension and finished with 327 rebounds, the

third-highest total for a single season in program history and the

most by a Gophers player in 40 years. Mbakwe also led Minnesota

with 13.9 points per game and was the best rebounder in the Big

Ten.

Named to the Preseason All-Big Ten first team last month, Mbakwe

was averaging 14 points and 9.1 rebounds before the injury this

season. The 6-foot-8, 245-pound Mbakwe evaluated his NBA draft

prospects in the spring before withdrawing his name and deciding to

return for his senior year.

This is the latest in what has been a long line of stunning

setbacks for Smith and the Gophers the last three years.

Last January, junior guard Devoe Joseph decided to transfer to

Oregon after he was suspended for academic issues among unspecified

violations of team rules. Senior guard Al Nolen broke his foot

later that month and didn’t play again, the year after he was

suspended for the second semester for falling behind in class.

Prized recruit Royce White, now at Iowa State, left the program two

years ago after legal trouble kept him off the court.

But none of those losses hit the team as hard as Mbakwe’s injury

likely will.

The other frontcourt starters, 6-foot-11 senior Ralph Sampson

and 6-foot-7 junior Rodney Williams, have been inconsistent and not

tough around the basket like Mbakwe. Sophomore Maurice Walker, who

is 6-foot-10 and 289 pounds, hasn’t played yet this season, still

recovering from knee surgery that ended his freshman year early.

That leaves freshman Elliott Eliason and junior Andre Ingram to

fill in.

None of them has close to the experience or the strength that

Mbakwe has.

”You hurt for him, but you know he’s a guy that has the will

power and has been through it before and can recover again,” Smith

said in the statement. ”We are certainly going to miss him. He’s

having a great year. He’s our leader. He’s been a big emotional

leader for us. Our players look up to Trevor, not just because of

his talent, but because of his work ethic, and the type of person

he’s been.”

Smith added: ”The team has watched what he’s had to deal with

and overcome, and I think that endears you-me, too-to a person like

him. He knows that we’re here for him, and we will do whatever we

can do to help him through this process.”