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Minnesota’s Mbakwe ‘Leaning Toward’ Returning

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(credit: Chris Chambers/Getty Images)

(credit: Chris Chambers/Getty Images)

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) —Minnesota forward Trevor Mbakwe got the sixth season of eligibility he wanted. The school also welcomed the NCAA’s decision.

So he’s coming back, right? Well, probably. But it’s not that simple.

Mbakwe said Saturday he’s strongly considering returning. He hasn’t ruled out leaving for the NBA, however. If he does decide to stay in school, the Gophers must find a scholarship for him, too.

The deadline for declaring for the draft is April 29.

“I’m leaning toward getting another year,” said Mbakwe, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the seventh game of the season. “But the situation is kind of complicated. We’ll know more after the season, but there’s a lot more that needs to play out before I’ll be able to make a decision.”

Minnesota, which faces Washington in the NIT semifinals on Tuesday, is currently at the NCAA maximum of 13 scholarship players, and center Ralph Sampson III is the only player whose eligibility will expire at the end of the season. Smith has signed two recruits to join the team in the fall: Charles Buggs of Arlington, Texas, and Wally Ellenson of Rice Lake, Wis.

Coach Tubby Smith said the school’s compliance office has been speaking with the NCAA about a potential exemption, but that’s not a guarantee. Otherwise, if Mbakwe does return and no bonus is granted, another player will have to be released from his scholarship. Attrition by dissatisfied players or guys who aren’t getting much playing time is not unusual at the end of a season, and Smith has seen several underclassmen transfer during his time at Minnesota, including Justin Cobbs (California), Colton Iverson (Colorado State) and Devoe Joseph (Oregon).

“I’m sure if the NCAA is willing to give someone a sixth year, they’re probably willing to work with us along those lines as far as scholarships are concerned,” Smith said. “We expect everybody back that’s in our program this year to be back next year.”

The other complication is Mbakwe’s recovery. He said he’ll resume running in a couple of weeks and start shooting drills in one month, but he won’t be able to play at full speed on the court until late May at the earliest. That will make it difficult to work out for NBA teams.

“I think they know what kind of player I am from all the success I’ve had in the past. I think the biggest question is definitely going to be my knee,” Mbakwe said.

The preseason All-Big Ten pick, who led the Gophers in scoring and the conference in rebounding last season as a junior, could use another year to show off his skills, prove he’s healed and become a first-round draft pick. But there’s also, of course, the risk of re-injury.

“It’s not a bad problem to have at all. Before, I was sweating bullets the last month or two, just waiting and not knowing what my future is going to be,” Mbakwe said.

His teammates would love to have him back.

“You never know with Trev,” forward Rodney Williams said. “But I’m definitely hoping that Trev comes back next year because with him, there’s no telling how great this team could be.”

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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