MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — When Trevor Mbakwe crumpled to the court with a torn ligament in his right knee on Sunday, the Minnesota Gophers lost one of the most valuable players in the country.
Mbakwe was Minnesota’s senior anchor on defense and the biggest force on offense who was leading a young team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots.
Now that the rest of the team is preparing to move on without their captain, coach Tubby Smith is trying to make sure that those who are still playing don’t try to fill the enormous void he left all by themselves.
“That’s the biggest thing you have to guard against is guys getting outside their comfort zones and trying to do things that are not part of their role,” Smith said Tuesday.
He saw some of that in the second half Sunday against Dayton, which was Minnesota’s first loss of the season. After Mbakwe was carried off the court, Smith watched his Gophers press a little too hard and try to do a little too much, and it ended up costing them.
So he has spent the past two practices preaching to everyone to stick together and lift each other’s play as a collective unit.
It will be a big job for a team that was viewed as a fringe contender for an NCAA tournament bid even with Mbakwe, a preseason All-America candidate. Mbakwe backed up the hype by averaging 14 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. He was shooting 60 percent from the field and carrying the team for most of the first seven games.
“He was a candidate for everybody’s All-American team,” Smith said. “That’s a tough loss. Psychologically, I don’t know there’s much else you can do besides look forward. You can’t look back. Hopefully guys see this opportunity as just that, it’s a chance to make the best of their opportunity and help us overcome the deficit we might have maybe on the boards and scoring and a lot of different areas.”
The injury problems don’t end with Mbakwe. Senior center Ralph Sampson III has been hampered by a sprained left ankle for the last few weeks and is questionable for Tuesday night’s game against Virginia Tech.
If Sampson cannot go, Smith said Elliott Eliason would slide into the starting center spot. Small forward Rodney Williams will move to power forward in place of Mbakwe and the Gophers will go with a three-guard lineup of Julian Welch, Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins against the Hokies.
“It’s pretty sad,” forward Oto Osenieks said of Mbakwe’s injury. “He was a really good player and a great leader so it’s going to be tough without him and we’ve all got to step up. Each player, every one of us needs to step up.”
Much of the burden will fall on Eliason and Williams in the frontcourt. Eliason has averaged less than 10 minutes a game this season and Williams, a super-athletic but inconsistent swingman, is averaging just 2.7 boards per game.
“It might help him get a rebound by putting him at the four spot,” Smith cracked.
In fact, Sampson is the team’s second-leading rebounder with just 3.7 rebounds per game.
“Everybody has a chance to step up,” Osenieks said. “We all need to grab extra rebounds. He averaged like 10 rebounds a game, so we all need to grab two rebounds more to replace him.”
Sounds easy in theory, but the Gophers know it comes down to more than simple mathematics to fill his void. Eliason had five points and six boards in 12 minutes of a win over Indiana State at a tournament in Orlando, Fla., last weekend, but followed that up by going scoreless with two rebounds in 13 minutes against Dayton.
The pressure of replacing Mbakwe already seems to be wearing on him.
“I have to step up and play a lot better,” Eliason said. “I had a decent game against Indiana State and then I had a really, really poor game the next game against Dayton. That just can’t happen anymore. I have to step up and get rebounds and finish around the rim. It just has to happen in order for us to be competitive and I plan on doing that.”
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