MINNEAPOLIS — There are plenty of reasons why the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team finished non-conference play with an impressive 12-1 record. The Gophers’ ability to dominate the boards is among those reasons.
After Saturday’s win over Lafayette, Minnesota is now averaging 41 rebounds per game, fourth-most of all Big Ten teams. The Gophers’ opponents have grabbed an average of 30.8 boards per game, meaning Minnesota’s rebounding margin through 13 games is a plus-10.2 — tied for second-best in the conference along with Michigan State.
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Speaking of those Spartans, they’ll be in Minneapolis on New Year’s Eve to kick off the Big Ten season. As good as the Gophers have been on the boards through non-conference play, they know an emphasis on rebounding will be even more important to survive the physicality of the Big Ten.
“In the Big Ten, it’s going to be a grind out type of league, and there’s going to be a lot of missed shots,” said senior forward Trevor Mbakwe. “I’m expecting that’s how it’s going to be against Michigan State.”
Two years ago, Mbakwe was the Big Ten’s top rebounder when he averaged 10.5 boards per game. Last year, he was grabbing 9.1 rebounds per game before tearing his ACL on Nov. 27. He’s played in every game this season and made his first start of the year on Saturday against the Leopards, but he hasn’t yet returned to form as the dominant rebounder he was during the 2010-11 season.
Mbakwe has shown glimpses of that lately, though. The fifth-year senior set a career high with 18 rebounds in a game against North Dakota State earlier this month. It was his fourth double-digit rebounding effort of the year.
The Gophers will need more games like that from Mbakwe, but they’re getting plenty of rebounding help from other sources. Saturday against Lafayette, Minnesota had a season-high 26 offensive rebounds. Six of those were by reserve forward Andre Ingram, who turned two of those boards into putback dunks during his season-high 19 minutes.
“Andre Ingram, I can’t say enough about how well he’s playing,” said Gophers head coach Tubby Smith said. “I really like his maturity and his experience.”
Senior forward Rodney Williams is second behind Mbakwe in rebounds per game with 6.1. Sophomore guard Joe Coleman has chipped in 4.5 boards per game, an increase of one and a half rebounds per game from his freshman year last season. It’s a sign that Coleman is becoming a more aggressive player for Minnesota, as was evident Saturday by his four dunks and four rebounds — including two offensive boards.
Of the teams in the top 10 in the nation in rebounding margin, two are in the Big Ten. Indiana is fifth in Division I with a margin of plus-12.2. Michigan State is a few spots behind at No. 8, grabbing 11.5 more rebounds per game than its opponents.
Minnesota has only been outrebounded twice in 13 games. Memphis had a 36-34 edge on the glass, but the Gophers still emerged victorious in that game. And Florida State nipped Minnesota by one rebound, 35-34, in yet another Gophers victory. Otherwise, Minnesota has beaten its opponents on the glass night in and night out.
That will be key now that the Big Ten season is here. The Gophers will have to do many things well in order to compete with the conference’s top tier of teams. Dominating the boards will be one of them.
“That’s one of our strengths, just go out and beat teams on the boards,” Mbakwe said. “As long as we can control the boards, you’re always going to put yourself in good position to win games. … It’s kind of big, and it’s part of our DNA.”