The wait is over for Minnesota’s Mbakwe and Nolen
Good thing they got that chance to go, too, because Trevor Mbakwe and Al Nolen might not have been able to wait any longer to play.
Mbakwe, after one long year in the legal system, is finally on the verge of taking the court — the kind with baskets at each end, not with a judge in the front. This Friday’s opener against Wofford will be Mbakwe’s first real game for the Gophers, two years after he verbally committed to Minnesota.
Nolen’s absence from meaningful action has extended since last January, when he was ruled ineligible for the remainder of the season because he fell behind in his schoolwork.
With 6-foot-8 Mbakwe’s strength and athleticism around the basket, Nolen’s passing and defensive ability back at point guard, a handful of improving returning players and a promising crop of freshmen, coach Tubby Smith boasted recently that this is the deepest and most athletic of his four teams at Minnesota. It might be his most experienced, too.
Time will tell if it’s good enough to get out of the first round of the NCAA tournament, where the Gophers have finished each of the last two years.
“Their belief is pretty high right now,” Smith said, adding: “We’ve got a good group of guys. I’ve really been pleased with their attitude, their disposition, their coachability.”
It’s easy to determine why Mbakwe would fit that description. He’s had quite the peripatetic career for a 21-year-old, attending two different high schools — he started at Henry Sibley in Mendota Heights and finished at St. Bernard’s in St. Paul after moving briefly to Atlanta — and three different colleges.
Mbakwe played one season at Marquette, where a knee injury limited him to only 11 games. He left for a junior college in Miami, where he was hit with a felony assault charge that was ultimately dropped when he entered a pretrial intervention program requiring 100 hours of community service. Maintaining his innocence all along, Mbakwe was finally allowed him to return to the roster this summer. He took a redshirt season while the case dragged on.
“It’s really exciting. I just have to prove I can still play,” Mbakwe said. “It’s been four years, and it’s like my first chance to prove I can play ... I’m like a freshman again.”
Blake Hoffarber, who with Nolen is one of only two seniors on the team, raved about Mbakwe’s ability recently after assessing what he saw in practice all last season.
“The Gophers haven’t had a rebounder of his caliber in a long time,” Hoffarber said. “His physical presence is definitely going to help our team. We’ve needed a guy like that for awhile.”
Mbakwe will join fellow juniors Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson as the leaders in the frontcourt, with beefy freshman Maurice Walker preparing to contribute behind them. Iverson, Sampson and soaring sophomore Rodney Williams — who hogged the highlight reels last November but saw his performance and his playing time drop off after that promising start — are in the starting lineup for now along with Nolen and Hoffarber in the backcourt.
But Mbakwe will push for significant playing time, particularly if Smith wants a more athletic lineup. Junior Devoe Joseph, who emerged as the team’s best player down the stretch while leading the Gophers to the Big Ten championship game in salvation of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament last March, will come off the bench as the backup point guard for now.
That’s because it’s Nolen’s job to lose again entering his final season. Being unable to watch during the second semester after he was suspended in mid-January was excruciating. He wasn’t allowed to travel to road games, either, so he’d just crawl into bed and stare at the TV while his friends and teammates took the court.
Smith sounded satisfied by the lesson Nolen learned about responsibility.
“He had a lot of things going on in his life during the first part of the season that he didn’t share with a lot of people, and by the time he got behind it was hard to catch up,” Smith said. “But I think he has matured a lot, and I’ve certainly seen a change in his attitude and in the classroom.”
The Gophers had 10 practices together in late August and early September in preparation for their Canadian tour, which included three games against schools in British Columbia.
The NCAA’s recent rule change also allowed incoming freshmen to play with them, so rookies like Walker, Austin Hollins and Chip Armelin had a chance to get going earlier than usual. Hollins, the son of NBA head coach Lionel Hollins of the Memphis Grizzlies, will push for playing time on the wing along with Armelin.
The trip also gave the Gophers an opportunity to test their character a little, when a scuffle emerged in one of their exhibition games against Trinity Western. Nolen said he couldn’t remember whether it was Mbakwe or Joseph who was in the middle of it, but the real point was that these teammates care about one another.
“The whole team was there, just ready to have his back,” Nolen said. “Not about fighting or anything, just to be there saying, ’We don’t want any of this.’ That really showed me a lot. Like, OK, the team’s really together.”