Adversity nothing new for Gophers' Mbakwe
MINNEAPOLIS — Before he arrived at the University of Minnesota campus, point guard Andre Hollins often watched his future team on TV. His parents bought the Big Ten Network just so Hollins, a Memphis native, could see every Gophers game.
As Hollins sat and watched Minnesota during the 2010-11 season, he saw an imposing force in the low post that went on to lead the Big Ten in rebounding that season. That player, junior forward Trevor Mbakwe, would soon be Hollins' teammate.
"Looking at him, seeing how he'd dominate the game in a lot of ways, it was fun," Hollins recalls. "I was excited coming in, playing with a player like that. I hadn't played with a player like that ever in my day."
Hollins didn't play with Mbakwe for long last season, however, as the senior forward tore his ACL before the Big Ten season began. Minnesota struggled without its senior leader and the Gophers limped into the NIT Tournament as Mbakwe watched from the bench.
The NCAA cleared Mbakwe for a sixth year of eligibility prior to the 2012-13 season. But there were plenty of question marks as he returned for one more year in Dinkytown. Could he ever return to the same dominant level that Hollins remembered watching two years ago? Would his knee limit him from once again becoming a force on the boards?
Mbakwe knew there would be doubters. It just added fuel to his fire.
"The first thing when somebody (returns), especially somebody who plays above the rim, one of the first things they like to say is, ‘Are they going to be able to jump the same?'" Mbakwe said Tuesday, one day before his Gophers played at Ohio State. "Obviously I wanted to show that I was back to normal. I didn't want any sympathy, I guess. I just wanted to come out and make them forget I even tore my ACL in the first place."
Now that Minnesota has just five games remaining in the regular season, some may have indeed forgotten that Mbakwe suffered the devastating knee injury back in November of 2011. He no longer has the visible reminder of a knee brace, and his play on the court has also helped shed the doubts. As of Tuesday, he has returned to the top of the list he once led as a junior — his 8.6 rebounds per game are tops in the Big Ten, ahead of Hoosiers standout sophomore Cody Zeller, who will visit Minneapolis next week.
Mbakwe now has eight double-doubles this season. While that doesn't quite equal the 19 double-doubles he had during his stellar junior season, there are other numbers and facets of his game that indicate Mbakwe is once again among the best big men in the Big Ten. His 1.6 blocks per game are third-most in the conference. He's grabbed 3.3 offensive rebounds per game, easily the most among all Big Ten players. And his field goal percentage is at 56.5 percent, fifth-best in the league.
"I think he's had a very good season, all things considered," said Mbakwe's coach, Tubby Smith. "I think he's proven that he's fully recovered. His shooting, I think he's improved some in that area, free throw shooting. His passing still has to continue to improve. Obviously everybody can be better defensively, but I think he's had a good year."
Mbakwe's solid year hasn't necessarily coincided with a successful season for his Gophers. Minnesota was ranked No. 8 in the nation at one point in the year but has since entered a rough stretch of the schedule in which it has lost seven of its last 10 conference games.
The Gophers and Mbakwe endured a similar stretch during his junior year, too. They lost 10 of their final 11 games and missed out completely on postseason play. This year's Gophers squad likely will still make the NCAA Tournament, and Mbakwe still believes Minnesota can compete with any team in the nation.
"We just hit a tough stretch. There were a couple games we beat ourselves with costly turnovers or coming out of the gate pretty slow," he said. "It's a tough season. The Big Ten's tough. There are no easy games, but we have to find a way to get back in the right direction and get guys healthy and playing together and we'll be fine."
All year, Mbakwe has kept that positive attitude. It's a sign of just how much he's embraced his role as a leader, both on the court and in the locker room.
"He's a very vocal leader, very truthful," Hollins said. "He'll tell players when they're doing a good job, but he'll also tell them when they're making mistakes. It's great to have a vocal senior leader like that."
Being vocal has become Mbakwe's trademark on the court after a monstrous dunk or big play. The senior will beat his chest or yell emphatically to celebrate, pumping up his teammates and the Gophers fans in the process.
After everything he's been through during his college career, there's plenty of reason for Mbakwe to celebrate. The St. Paul native spent one season at Marquette before transferring to Miami Dade Community College and then back home to Minnesota. Along the way, he's had several off-court mishaps, including a DUI this past summer that nearly resulted in Smith kicking him off the team.
Through it all, Mbakwe has persevered and has returned to become at least some semblance of the player he was before his knee injury. Once his time at Minnesota is done, Mbakwe hopes to be playing basketball at the next level — a goal that once seemed uncertain when his right knee buckled that fateful night in 2011.
"Coming back from an ACL injury to lead the league in rebounding, that's just amazing," Hollins said. "It speaks to how hard he worked in the summer time. It showed his mental toughness with all the adversity he was going through. It just shows what type of person he is. Good things happen to good people."
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