The Minnesota Gophers Basketball team struggled rebounding the ball at times last year.
While they ranked third in the conference in rebounding, some of their bigger losses came due to a lack of dominant inside force to clear the boards and not give the opponent second chance opportunities.
The last man that could be legitimately considered a competent rebounder for the Gophers was one-and-done Kris Humphries in 2003-04, and no one since has approached the 10.1 boards a game Humphries put up that season.
In fact, the only two people to average six rebounds/gm for the squad since that season were center Jeff Hagen at 6.1 in 2004-05, and shooting guard Vince Grier in 2005-06 at 6.3.
The fact that the team’s second leading single-season rebounder in the last eight years is a guard says a lot, but Tubby Smith may have found the long-awaited answer he and previous coaches had been looking for.
Two full years away from a Division 1 court and one court case later, Minnesota fans will tell you it’s been worth the wait.
Trevor Mbakwe’s journey back to prominence has been a long one, but he has seemed to learn a few things along the way.
Not only has Mbakwe matured physically, now nearly 22 years old as a junior, but it seems his court case and off-court struggles have taught him something.
Mbakwe has been a quiet force for the Gophers, just the way Tubby Smith likes it, on his way to 13 points and 10 rebounds/gm early on. Not hearing from him off the court is the main issue at this point, because one more injury or suspension could doom the Gophers early conference season in which they face three ranked opponents in their first five conference matchups.
Mbakwe’s is a rebounding maven. However, he is not just a one trick pony. Shooting an ungodly 61% from the field, obviously aided by his ability to offensive rebound at a 3.3 per game clip, Mbakwe is contributing in a number of different ways.
Creating second chances and getting to the line nearly eight times per game is giving a boost to the other two members of the Gophers front line, Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III, who are able to stay within their comfort zones since neither are particularly good offensive rebounders.
Sampson is more interested in shot blocking, which he does better than anyone in the Big Ten, but that can also be dangerous without a strong rebounding presence to pick up the slack on the boards, leaving the door open for second chance opportunities.
Iverson tends to be rather soft inside at times, not getting physical enough and sometimes shying away from contact. Mbakwe brings a nice workmanlike attitude and way of playing the game that compliments Sampson’s risk-taking defense and Iverson’s more passive offensive game.
Mbakwe has used his strength inside to get to double figures every game this year and record six double-doubles in the Gophers 10 games.
Not much else needs to be said about how Mbakwe plays after looking at his stat line from the Cornell game.
Mbakwe did not have the offensive touch, going 0-4 from the field, but still managed 12 points and 16 rebounds.
All 12 of those points obviously came from the line, and quite honestly he should’ve done better, with his poor free throw shooting being really the only hole in his game to this point (57%, 12-20 vs. Cornell).
He simply finds a way to be productive, even on his worst shooting day.
Mbakwe has yet to be tested by any dominant big men, but has shown that he can put up these types of numbers against some of the nations top teams (12 and 9 vs. UNC, 16 and 7 vs. West Virginia).
His athleticism should keep him near the top of the Big Ten rebounding stats, which he currently leads at 10.2 per game, with Ohio State Fab Freshman Jered Sullinger checking in at #2 with 9.9.
Considering his points are coming off second chances he creates, if he can continue to rebound at this rate his shooting percentage should be near the top as well, as he sits at 61%, second in the Big Ten to Michigan’s Jordan Morgan (61.4%).
There are no guarantees that Mbakwe can keep up this play in the Big Ten season, which is where his first real test will be, but his athleticism and strength project well in the conference.
Should he be able to find a way to keep it up, it will be a huge asset to Tubby Smith’s team and should be a way to keep some semblance of an offense regardless of what happens.
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