Gophers’ Mbakwe looks near 100 percent

MINNEAPOLIS — After his second put-back dunk of the night, Gophers senior Trevor Mbakwe let out a yell, as if to announce to the college basketball world that he is back.

Minnesota fans have seen him do that plenty before, vocalizing his emotion after a big play. It’s happened infrequently this year, though, as Mbakwe is still trying to work his way back from a torn ACL that sidelined him for most of last season.

Slowly but surely, Mbakwe is regaining his old form. Tuesday was perhaps the best example of that, as the senior grabbed a career-high 18 rebounds — six offensive boards — and added 14 points in Minnesota’s 70-57 win over visiting North Dakota State.

“Trevor’s intensity has definitely picked up,” said fellow senior Rodney Williams. “He’s been stepping up in the big games when we need him to, like he used to. It’s just good to have him back out there and have him looking like the old Trev.”

The old Mbakwe (that’s not a reference to the 23-year-old’s age) was the Big Ten’s leading rebounder two seasons ago when he grabbed 10.5 boards per game. Before his injury last season, he was rebounding at a clip of 9.1 per game.

Prior to Tuesday, Mbakwe had just three games in which he tallied double-digit rebounds. But he was a different player Tuesday. He was getting offensive rebounds — including the two put-back dunks — and hustling into the corners of the Williams Arena court for loose balls.

The basketball just seemed to find Mbakwe on Tuesday. It might not have actually been that easy, but the fifth-year senior made it look that way.

“I just wanted to come out and play with energy,” Mbakwe said. “We got off to a slow start and I kind of wanted to come in and be an energy guy. I was able to get some rebounds pretty early. In the second half, they called my number and I made the most of my opportunity.”

It’s probably safe to say that Mbakwe is the best bench player in the Big Ten, if not the country. Through 12 games, Mbakwe has yet to start.

Tuesday, though, he saw extended minutes with several of the Gophers’ starters, including Williams. The senior duo combined for 33 of Minnesota’s 70 points and 24 of the Gophers’ 43 rebounds. Playing with one another seems to make each other’s games better.

It sure did Tuesday.

“He takes pressure off me,” Mbakwe said of Williams. “Most teams are locked in on one of us, but they have to respect the other guy. We kind of feed off each other pretty well.”

If Mbakwe continues to play this well, it’ll be hard for Smith to keep him on the bench much longer. After a slow start to the season in which he scored in single figures for Minnesota’s first four games, Mbakwe is getting more minutes — and making the most of them. On top of his 14-point, 18-rebound effort, he also added a block, a steal and an assist in 21 minutes.

Mbakwe insists it doesn’t matter if he’s starting or coming off the bench. Smith, meanwhile, reiterated that he likes Mbakwe entering the game as a reserve.

“He’s the best rebounder I’ve ever coached. I say that all the time,” Smith said. “He’s very patient in the post. He looked good doing that. He’s learning to do other things, develop other parts of his game other than just sheer power. … I like him coming off the bench right now.”

While Williams was giving his team a spark with a highlight reel 360-degree dunk, it was Mbakwe leading by example with his hustle and tough play near the basket. As a fifth-year senior, he’s doing the little things that are rubbing off on his teammates.

“We feed off of everything — every hustle play, people diving for the ball,” said sophomore guard Andre Hollins. “We’re trying to play aggressive defense, and that (excitement) on our end might make the offense pick it up. It helps us.”

There are some critics who say Mbakwe will never be the same player he was before his injury, when he led the Big Ten in rebounding and was a force to be reckoned with in the post. Early on this year, he indeed looked slow. He lacked that explosiveness that made him a special player earlier in his Gophers career.

Tuesday’s effort was a bit of a statement by Mbakwe. He knows what’s been written about him, and he’s out to prove the naysayers wrong.

“Coach always tells me don’t get too high or too low on yourself,” Mbakwe said. “Sometimes I read it, but I don’t put too much into it. It just adds more fuel to the fire. It motivates me in a good way. I’m focused.”

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