MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Forward Trevor Mbakwe has the potential to be picked in next year’s NBA draft. Yet, he now comes off the bench for Minnesota.
There is no doubt that coach Tubby Smith has his deepest team in six years of leading the Gophers. Whether that will translate into long-term success is yet to be determined. However, the season got off to a good start Friday night.
Austin Hollins scored 15 of his career-high 20 points in the first half as Minnesota jumped out to a big lead on its way to a 72-36 win over American.
Rodney Williams added 16 for the Gophers, who got points from 10 of their 13 players who entered the game.
“Barring any injuries, I think that’s the way we’re going to play,” Mbakwe said. “Everybody deserves the minutes that they play and it’s going to go far in the future.”
All five Minnesota starters — Williams and center Elliott Eliason with guards Austin Hollins, Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman — are back for Minnesota, which advanced to the NIT title game last season and is projected to be a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team.
They were clearly a mismatch for the Eagles, who were picked to finish third in the Patriot League preseason poll behind Lehigh and Bucknell.
Austin Hollins scored eight points during a 15-0 Gophers run to start the game, including a steal and dunk and a fast-break layup. Struggling against the Minnesota full-court press, American committed three turnovers, was 0 for 4 from the field and had no rebounds in the game’s first 5 minutes.
“The offense came from what the defense gave us,” Hollins said. “Once we played D we got a lot of fast breaks and got up and down the court. … Everybody was getting in the passing lanes, getting deflections.”
American coach Jeff Jones gave credit to Minnesota’s aggressiveness without the ball, but lamented his own team’s mistakes. “We have to be better at basic basketball fundamentals if we want to give ourselves a chance to win at a place like Minnesota.”
American had 14 first-half turnovers that led to 17 Minnesota points. The Eagles finished with 22 turnovers compared to eight by Minnesota.
Hollins, a junior, had two more steals and dunks during a 15-2 Minnesota run that put the game at 34-8 with 5:39 to play in the first half.
Smith quickly showcased the depth on this year’s roster by getting 11 players into the game before it was 9 minutes old. That included Mbakwe and Mo Walker, both of whom are returning from knee injuries.
The 6-foot-8 Mbakwe is in his sixth season of college basketball — his fourth at Minnesota after the NCAA granted him an extra season of eligibility. Through seven games last season, he showed he is one of the conference’s best players by being the team’s leading scorer (14.0) and rebounder (9.1) before tearing his right ACL. As a freshman at Marquette in 2007-08, he missed the majority of the year with a knee injury.
Mbakwe, who earlier this week tweeted that he would repay his athletic scholarship this year if the Gophers fail to make the NCAA tournament, finished with four points — including a thunderous dunk on an alley-oop — three rebounds and two blocks in 14 minutes.
“I think he’s back,” Smith said.
Walker also came off the bench to play in his first regular season game in almost two years. The redshirt sophomore tore the PCL and meniscus in his right knee on Dec. 23, 2010, then missed all of last season while dealing with complications from the injury. Walker had four points, two rebounds and a block in nine minutes.
“We’ve got a lot of talent on this team. We all work hard and I’ve got to work my way to get more minutes,” said the 6-foot-10 forward, who combined with Mbakwe gives the Gophers some considerable size in the post. Last season, Minnesota’s frontcourt was too often dominated by bigger and stronger opponents.
“Their bigs got kind of tired and then you bring in Mo off the bench and then I come off the bench,” Mbakwe said. “After so many guys beating you up throughout the course of the game we kind of wore the opponent down.”
A layup by Austin Hollins gave Minnesota a 60-26 lead midway through the second half.
American went more than 12 minutes without a basket in the second half — but made nine free throws — before Jesse Reed banked in a 3-pointer to make it 62-30.
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)