Mbakwe roughs up Hoosiers, Zeller in upset

MINNEAPOLIS — Indiana boasts two NBA lottery picks on its roster in Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, either of whom could wind up as the Big Ten Player of the Year. But on Tuesday night at Williams Arena, University of Minnesota senior Trevor Mbakwe was the best player on the court.

Mbakwe dominated Zeller on both offense and defense and outshone Oladipo. Thanks to perhaps the best game of his long and turbulent college career, Mbakwe’s unranked Gophers were able to pull off the upset of the top-ranked Hoosiers, 77-73.

“I definitely think that was Trev’s best game all around,” said fellow senior Rodney Williams. “He came out firing from start to finish.”

Mbakwe, a sixth-year senior, scored a season-high 21 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, including six on the offensive glass. He also had a big block on Zeller that knocked Indiana’s standout sophomore to the ground and energized the crowd.

Before the season, many pegged Zeller as the preseason player of the year in college basketball. He was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, decked in Indiana’s trademark red-and-white striped Hoosiers warm-up pants. Nearly everyone had Zeller as a first-team All-American and perhaps the top pick in the NBA draft if he decided to leave early.

But Zeller was a non-factor Tuesday, thanks in large part to Mbakwe’s tenacious defense — even though the 6-foot-8 Mbakwe gave up 4 inches to the 7-footer.

“Cody Zeller is arguably one of the top five players in the nation, and Trevor Mbakwe canceled him out completely tonight,” said Gophers point guard Andre Hollins. “It was a great game.”

Tuesday was perhaps the highest point in Mbakwe’s up-and-down career at Minnesota. As a fifth-year senior last year, he tore his ACL prior to the Big Ten season and was granted a sixth year of eligibility. In the summer leading up to the 2012-13 season, Mbakwe was arrested for DUI, the latest of several legal troubles he’s had during his college career.

Before the knee injury, Mbakwe’s NBA prospects looked bright. He led the Big Ten in rebounding as a junior and was poised to have a big senior season before his knee buckled. It took time for Mbakwe to return to the Mbakwe of old, the Mbakwe who dominated Indiana on Tuesday.

There were likely several NBA eyes watching Tuesday’s matchup — not so much for Mbakwe but for Zeller and Oladipo, who are projected by many to be taken in the first 10 picks of the next NBA draft. Mbakwe was asked after his team upset a Hoosiers squad with two NBA picks whether Tuesday’s impressive performance might help his draft stock.

“I didn’t feel I’ve been playing up to my potential lately,” said Mbakwe, who’s averaging 9.5 points and 8.5 rebounds this season. “I just wanted to come out and be aggressive. I don’t think I’ve been as aggressive as of late and haven’t really demanded the ball. Today I was able to get some open looks and I was able to knock them down.”

Mbakwe scored the Gophers’ first six points of the game to help his team jump out to an 8-2 lead. Those three field goals included a layup, a long jump shot and a dunk that brought the Williams Arena crowd to its feet early.

It was the same story to start the second half as Mbakwe scored four quick points to tie the game at 34-34. Though he scored just five more points in the remaining 19 minutes, Mbakwe’s energy seemed to be contagious.

The way Mbakwe played Tuesday certainly impressed his former coach, Tom Crean, who is now the head coach of Indiana. Crean recruited Mbakwe at Marquette, where Mbakwe began his college career but spent just one season before transferring.

“That’s a high-level player, high-energy tough guy that plays the game at a desperate level,” Crean said of Mbakwe. “He’s been in college a long time. He’s endured a lot. When we were at Marquette and signed him, I didn’t feel we’d have him more than two, maybe three years tops. And then he got injured that first year and he left and I left. One thing leads to another, and here he is.

“That’s a grown man that’s one of the best rebounders in this country and certainly in our league. He was the toughest guy on the court tonight.”

Minnesota outrebounded Indiana, 44-30, including a 23-10 difference on the offensive glass. Mbakwe’s 12 rebounds had a big part in that.

“He was a monster on the boards,” Williams said. “We all know that Trev can do that on a nightly basis. I definitely know he’s going to feed off this game. He’s not going to stop here.”

It’s been a frustrating stretch for Mbakwe and the Gophers over the past few months. After a blistering 15-1 start to the regular season, Minnesota had lost eight of its next 11 games prior to Tuesday. The Gophers were once ranked No. 8 in the nation but were no longer even receiving votes in the top 25 polls earlier this week.

Mbakwe had been streaky at times, scoring just four points in his team’s blowout loss to Ohio State last Wednesday. Tuesday, though, he was at his best of the season, perhaps of his career. It resulted in the Gophers’ memorable upset win and an equally memorable storming of the court by Minnesota’s fans.

“It’s great. It’s something you see on TV all the time. You always want the opportunity, especially in college,” Mbakwe said. “The fans have been great for us, even through this tough run, and we wanted to give them something to cheer about. …

“We went through a tough stretch and had some tough losses. The way we bounced back is unbelievable. We showed that we can be one of the best teams in the country.”

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