Conference play hasn’t yet begun for the Big Ten yet this season, but the Minnesota Golden Gophers are anxious to start play in a league where they are an afterthought. Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan seem to be the consensus frontrunners for the top third of the league.
Minnesota played the DePaul Blue Demons in Lake Buena Vista, Florida on Thanksgiving in front of an announced crowd of slightly over three thousand.
The statisticians must have been counting all of the employees in the building in their tally. Nonetheless, Tubby Smith and crew fought through a double digit halftime deficit to pull out the victory 86-85 in a high scoring affair.
Like many games this time of year, sloppy play ruled the day for both sides. Unforced turnovers were rampant by both clubs and the Gophers missed ten of twenty-seven free throws. The bottom line is that the club survived to play against the Indiana State Sycamores in the next round. If you are like me, you can’t name a player for them since Larry Bird, but they did make the NCAA tournament a year ago. In addition, they took the Texas Tech Red Raiders to the woodshed in the earlier contest.
Trevor Mbakwe was the only player for Minnesota to have double digit rebounds to accompany his sixteen points. The timing just may be right for him to commence his breakout season with the team. He had some turmoil earlier in his career with an injury and subsequent transfer from Marquette University of the Big East. He then took his talents to South Beach-specifically Miami Dade College. Now, he is a staple in all aspects of Tubby Smith’s game plan this year.
The six foot eight inch forward out of St. Bernard’s High School in Saint Paul will play in the NBA because of his size. He is built like a man already, so the need to fill out or hit in the weight room is not there. He also has the ability to guard his counterpart. So many fans are enthralled with a player’s offense prowess, but scouts wonder who he is going to guard at the next level. Please reference Jason Kapono. The Philadelphia 76er doesn’t get many minutes in the league even though he certainly can put the ball through the net at will.
Mbakwe, conversely, can block shots, defend his man, hit a ten foot jumper, make free throws, and pass with efficiency. He can do almost everything on the court, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t continue to hone his craft to make his play become even better. His handle could also be improved if he plans on earning his living in the game.
Through his experience with the Kentucky Wildcats, Tubby Smith undoubtedly understands what it takes to play on a nightly basis in the NBA. Now that he seems to be healthier, he can fully turn his attention to guiding Mbakwe there. The Gophers can be a solid midlevel team in the conference if this occurs.