Wednesday, February 27, 2013

On a Night of Stars, Trevor Mbakwe Shined Brightest

Ben Fishman

    Six years ago, a young man named Trevor Mbakwe committed to Tom Crean at the University of Marquette. Since then, Mbakwe has bounced from Wisconsin, to Miami and all the way back up to Minnesota. Six years later, the two still keep a nice relationship. Except of course on nights like last night.
    See, by now you know that Tom Crean left Marquette for the Indiana job. Mbakwe had some problems, with his knees and then the law, and bounced around from Marquette to Miami Dade Community College and finally landed at Minnesota under coach Tubby Smith. This year is his 6th year of eligibility, and boy did Minnesota need it. The Gophers needed Mbakwe the man in last night’s 77-73 victory over the top ranked Indiana Hoosiers, a win that solidifies Minnesota as a lock for the NCAA Tournament.
    The reason Minnesota picked up the win? Forget Austin and Andre Hollins, forget the rowdy crowd inside the Barn, and forget the high pressured intensity of a team in a must-win situation. No, in order to really understand this win, you need to look at the man, Trevor Mbakwe. He finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds. But the plays that won’t show in the box score are all on defense. Mbakwe shut down preseason Player of the Year Cody Zeller, forcing the big man into an awful night of shooting and forcing Zeller to foul out, for the second time in his career.

    Mbakwe is the heart and soul of this Minnesota team, and even when he went to the bench with foul trouble, there he was, screaming and directing his teammates in huddles and on the floor. The big man has certainly waved off his past transgressions and established himself as one of the best interior players in America.
    Mbakwe at the moment is considered a late-first round or early-second round pick in this years NBA Draft, and it would be a mistake to not take this kid in the first round. He has hustle, tenacity and a smooth offensive game that was on display for all of his 25 foul plagued minutes.

    What did Tubby Smith have to say about his 6th year senior? After posting his league leading, think about that for a second, 7th double-double of the year, Gophers coach Tubby Smith simply said, “Trevor set that tone for us,” referring to his Gophers coming out with a bit of an edge against an Indiana team whose last two road games resulted in huge wins at Ohio State and at Michigan State.
    Said Indiana coach Tom Crean, Mbakwe’s former coach at Marquette, “He’s a high-level, high-energy, tough guy who plays the game at a desperate level.”
    The win wasn’t as much a coming out party for Minnesota as it was a question for Indiana. The Hoosiers shouldn’t hold their heads low after this one, and they really can’t with a scary Iowa team coming in this Saturday, winners of 3 of their last 4. Iowa pushed Indiana to the wire to start the Big Ten slate for both teams, and now needs a huge win in Assembly Hall Saturday.
    Indiana didn’t match Minnesota’s poise and got handed a tough loss on the road, a place where they were so good as of late. But let’s be honest, the Gophers owed ‘em one. Indiana is still in first place in the Big Ten, but the slip up means the Hoosiers now must win out to win the Big Ten regular season title and assure itself of the top seed in Chicago in three weeks.
    If the season ended today, the Hoosiers would get Iowa or Purdue in the quarters, then likely Michigan or Ohio State in the semis. Just another sign of how tough the Big Ten really is.

    For Minnesota, the Gophers can’t celebrate for too long, they finish with Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue, three games they could very easily sweep. If Minnesota wins out and finishes 10-8 in the conference, they’d be red hot, and a team that you probably wouldn’t want to see Chicago.

    Either way, last night’s game showed that the Big Ten has been its own mini version of March Madness. But as Tubby Smith said afterwards, “Hey, we’ve gotta get busy, we’ve got practice tomorrow.”
    Expect anything different?

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