Position Preview: Centers and Power Forwards

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The Golden Gopher men's basketball team opens its regular season against Bucknell on Nov. 11. As that date approaches, Gophersports.com will preview what to look for at various positions. The first installment focuses on the centers/power forwards. Up next will be the small forwards, followed by the guards.

This season, Minnesota's entire senior class is concentrated in the center/power forward position. Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III, being the only two seniors on the squad, "are going to have to carry the load this year," according to head coach Tubby Smith.
Go Gophers! Trevor Mbakwe
Go Gophers!
Mbakwe is a preseason All-Big Ten selection.
Go Gophers!

Mbakwe certainly carried the load in 2010-11, leading the team in both scoring (13.9 ppg) and rebounding (10.5 rpg) while recording 19 double-doubles. He led the U.S. team in rebounding at the World University Games over the summer.

"He came back, and we talked about his consistency and trying to be a more complete player, the things he needs to work on, especially his free-throw shooting," Smith said. "I think that's something that he is still improving on."

Mbakwe led the Gophers with 17 points and 11 rebounds in their exhibition win over Bemidji State. That was to be expected from someone who earned so much preseason acclaim: Mbakwe has been named to the John R. Wooden Award watch list, the Lute Olson Preseason All-America Team, the preseason All-Big Ten First Team, among other honors.

"He's really trying to be more consistent in his efforts, playing both ends of the court," Smith said. "One of the things I think we had concerns about was just him staying out of foul trouble, making sure he's playing defense before his man gets the basketball, things like that, that they're going to make him a more complete player."

Sampson has also been working toward becoming a complete player. He worked out in Chicago over the summer with Michael Jordan's trainer.
 
"Ralph has improved each year," Smith said. "His stats have gone up each year, and I expect him to do the same this year. He's one of the top shot blockers in the league. His shooting was a little off last year, but he'll be a lot better this year. He needed to get the ball to the basket more, get to the free throw line, and he'll be fine."

Sampson got to the line a few times Tuesday, but connected on only one of four attempts. Other than that, he had a solid game, scoring 15 points, second on the team after Mbakwe.

Sophomore Maurice Walker, the Gophers' other returning power forward, is still recovering from surgery to repair a knee injury he suffered last December. Before the injury, he averaged 9.6 minutes per game and boasted a shooting percentage of 51.4 percent. If he is healthy enough, Walker will be able to provide quality minutes of the bench to give Mbakwe or Sampson a rest, but Smith is not rushing his return.

"We're going to do what's best for him," Smith said.

Minnesota also has some new players to add depth to the frontcourt. Redshirt freshman Elliott Eliason and junior transfer Andre Ingram both saw their first action as Gophers. Eliason struggled offensively, going 0-for-5 shooting. As Smith said on preseason media day, "he'll have to make the adjustment getting back to playing" after sitting out last season as a redshirt.

After he works off some of the rust, Eliason should be able to contribute off the bench when Sampson or Mbakwe needs a rest.

"I think Elliott has made tremendous strides," Smith said. "His strength, his body, his transformation from his freshman year to now has been outstanding. He's got a good work ethic. ...He's very aggressive. He's very physical. He'll give us a real presence because he understands how to play the game."

Ingram played four minutes in the Bemidji State game, scoring two points.

"He's about 6-7, really a leaper, strong rebounder," Smith said. "He'll give us some added depth in the front court that we need."

The Gophers also have on their roster redshirt sophomore Chris Halvorsen, who did not play in Tuesday's exhibition game. He spent a year at Valparaiso before transferring back to his home state. After sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, Halvorsen could provide another inside option this year.

"Chris is probably one of our best athletes on the team," Smith said.

Overall, Mbakwe and Sampson will likely be playing the bulk of the minutes down low. They are both experienced senior players, and one of the most talked about frontcourt tandems in the nation. Still, it will be important for the Gophers to have viable options for when the seniors need a rest. The early exhibition games will be an opportunity for those bench players to show what they can do and try to prove that they should see significant playing time.

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