The longer you miss someone, the more you appreciate it when they return. For fans of Golden Gopher men's basketball, it's been far too long since senior forward Trevor Mbakwe and sophomore forward Maurice Walker have played in a game.
Both players, of course, made appearances in each of Minnesota's two exhibitions during the past couple weeks. But, officially, tonight's 72-36 season-opening win against American University marked the first time in what has seemed like ages that the pair of Gopher big men had donned a Maroon and Gold uniform.
Trevor Mbakwe made his return to the court Friday night against American University.
For Mbakwe, tonight's game was his first since tearing the ACL in his right knee during an 86-70 loss to Dayton on Nov. 27, 2011. The wait for Walker's return has been even longer, as he had not played for the Gophers since tearing the posterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee versus South Dakota State on Dec. 23, 2010.
The 6-foot-8 Mbakwe entered the game to a rousing ovation with 7:59 remaining in the first half. He played 14 minutes, finishing with four points, three rebounds, two steals, and two blocked shots. And, for those who stayed around long enough, Mbakwe's alley-oop dunk on an assist from Chris Halvorsen with 1:39 left in the game might have been the highlight of the night.
A potential National Basketball Association draftee, Mbakwe hopes to return to the form he displayed during his junior season and in the first seven games last season. He led the Big Ten in rebounding as a junior, pulling down 10.5 boards per game to go along with a scoring average of 13.9 ppg. Last year, he earned preseason all-Big Ten honors and was averaging 14.0 points and 9.1 rebounds per contest before the injury.
Walker is an imposing presence at 6-foot-10, 289 pounds. He averaged 3.7 points and 2.8 rebounds per game during the 12 games he played in 2010-11.
Like Mbakwe, he entered the game to an extended roar from the crowd of 10,172, and he saw limited action. Walker scored four points, grabbed a pair of rebounds, dished out an assist, and blocked a shot during his nine minutes on the floor.
Mbakwe commented after the game about how fun it was to have Big Mo back on the court.
"It was great. He's been working hard for the last year and a half," Mbakwe said. "I'm happier about his comeback than mine. He's been through a lot. It was great to see him out there, the crowd gave him a big ovation and he's going to be big for us this year."
As for his own return, and how long it might take him to get back to full strength, Mbakwe added, "I don't know, I think it's just a confidence thing, trusting my knee, and knowing that the doctors did a great job. I think now, conditioning is the biggest part. My knee is fine, it doesn't hurt at all."
If that's the case, Gophers fans are going to be happy campers this season.
Fresh off of a 23-win season, the Gopher Men's basketball team hopes its depth will help them through a tough non-conference schedule and a brutal Big Ten schedule.
This season, the Gophers return most of their team from the 2011-2012 campaign. On the roster this year, at least 13 out of the 15 on the roster saw minutes at some point last year.
Some of the key returners from last year's NIT Finalist team include sophomore point guard Andre Hollins, junior point guard Austin Hollins, sophomore forward Joe Coleman, senior forward Rodney Williams, and sixth year senior Trevor Mbakwe.
Gophers Head Coach Tubby Smith says the depth of his team is something he hasn't had in a few years.
Point guard Andre Hollins figures to be a key cog for the Gophers this season.
"We've got good depth--that is one thing I'm excited about," Smith said. "Depth though is only good if you have everybody available to you. That's been one of our problems over the last two years. We haven't had everyone available to us."
Last season, the Gophers depth was depleted early in the season when Mbakwe and red-shirt sophomore forward Maurice Walker went down with knee injuries.
While both Walker and Mbakwe are expected to be back at the start of the season, Mbakwe was having a career year when he went down.
Mbakwe was leading the team in scoring with 14 points per game when he went down just seven games into the season. He says he expects to be ready at the start of the year.
"The knee is doing great," Mbakwe said on media day. "I expect to play the first game. The knee is getting stronger by the day. Our staff has done a great job with slowly, putting me back into the lineup and with the team. I feel comfortable."
The Gophers depth will be key early-on. The schedule features tough road tests in a Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchup at Florida State and a December trip to the University of Southern California.
The Gophers will also take part in the in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas. The Gophers will play Duke in their first game. The tournament also features teams like Memphis, Louisville, Stanford and Missouri among others.
The Big Ten schedule could be even tougher. There are five teams from the Big Ten featured in the USA Today Preseason Coaches' poll. Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State are in the top-five alone. In what will be a tough schedule for the Gophers, the team will rely on its senior leadership.
Among those returning is Rodney Williams. With a solid year this year, Williams could become only the sixth player in Gopher history to score 1,000 points, haul down 500 rebounds and dish out 200 assists. Williams believes the team can make a run in the NCAA tournament this year.
"I definitely think we can be a Sweet 16 team at least. We're a real deep team," Williams said. "We got a lot of guys at every position that are really good, so I think we're going to be a team to be reckon with this year."
American University head coach Jeff Jones and the Eagles travel to Williams Arena Friday.
From time to time during the 2012-13 season Gophersports.com basketball beat writer Jeff Fett will check in with someone that is close to the Gophers upcoming opponent. Can't get any closer that American head coach Jeff Jones. Jones has been at the helm at American for 12 seasons and has won a program-leading 202 games. We asked Coach Jones several questions about his team, and what he hopes to accomplish against Minnesota and the rest of the year. Please see below:
GopherSports.com: Who are your top returning players and which ones will make your team perform well this year?
Jeff Jones: "Our best returning player is our senior point guard Danny Munoz. He had a real solid year last year and worked very hard in the off-season and has come back. I think he's poised to have a terrific year for us and he's going to be vitally important in anything that we do.
"Our starting center from last year returns, (6'10", junior) Tony Wroblicky. When you look at his numbers from his sophomore year, you know its not real impressive, but down the stretch his statistics were on the upward trend, and so I think he's going to have a good year for us.
"A player who's returning, but wasn't on the team last year, was Stephen Lumpkins. He was a second-team All-Patriot league player two years ago. He averaged 14 and eight I think. Last year, he was in the Kansas City Royals organization as a pitcher, so he didn't play basketball for a year. He's kind of picked up where he left off. You certainly don't see any rust in his game and we're going to need him to be a big factor for us as well.
"So these would be the top three. You know for our league, for Minnesota, its no big deal, or for a Big Ten school, but for our league, having a 6'10"- a 6'9" guy in the lineup at the same time, that's a pretty big front line."
GopherSports.com: What kind of style do you play?
Jeff Jones: "I would say moderate. Offensively, if the break is there, we'll certainly explore those opportunities, but we certainly don't want to get into a real fast paced game. We prefer more deliberate than break-neck speed. A majority of the time, we're going to run a lot of sets and try to see if we can create shots through our offense."
GopherSports.com: What do you hope to accomplish in your first game of the year against Minnesota?
Jeff Jones: "As far as the game against Minnesota, you know, the simple goal is we want to try to win the game. Short of that, we want to play as well as we can. We want to learn from the opportunity. Whoever the Patriot League team is, the way you go to the NCAA tournament, you're going to be playing somebody like Minnesota or Kansas or Georgetown or other teams that are on our schedule, so you want to try to play against that top competition.
"Obviously, our guys are well aware of the late season stretch that Minnesota put on. They're young, but experienced and they virtually have everyone coming back. They're fully aware of that, but I think you know for us, it's something that our guys can be excited about because they've read about and watched on TV about Minnesota and they know for us to have any chance, we've got to play extremely well."
GopherSports.com: What makes you schedule tough teams like Minnesota, Kansas and Georgetown?
Jeff Jones: "We want to challenge ourselves. I'm a big believer of it. I've been doing this a long time. I've known Tubby for 25 years. Norwood Teague, the AD there, is one of my very best friends. We used to work together at the University of Virginia.
"We always want to challenge ourselves. That's the way you get better. Going up against programs the likes of Minnesota, Kansas or Georgetown, that helps you prepare to be the best team we possibly can by the time conference play rolls around.
"We've beaten DePaul, Florida State. We've beaten Maryland. You know every once in a while, you can pull off that upset. You know in order to do that, we've got to be a little bit lucky. We've got to play really, really hard and we've got to play really, really well."
GopherSports.com: What are your goals for your team in the Patriot League?
Jeff Jones: "Our goals for the year are to win the Patriot League and be playing our best basketball at the end of the year. The Patriot League is a one bid league, so you've got to be ready for the tournament and see if you can win that title and participate in the NCAA tournament.
"I certainly hope we can be in the top half (of the conference). For the last 12 years, since American has been in the Patriot League, we've never finished below fourth. We've been probably over a decade the most consistent team in the Patriot League, and that's something that we've prided ourselves on, that year in and year out, we want to be in the picture. We want to be competitive for that Patriot League title.
"You know this year, I believe we were picked third in a lot of preseason polls, you know, we'll see. Bucknell and Leigh are in the top two right now and on paper, are clearly the two best teams, but the great thing about athletics is that the competitions are played on the court and you know we'll get a chance to work hard and improve. When conference play rolls around, you know hopefully we can handle that gap and be a factor in the conference picture."
GopherSports.com: Anything else about American University you want Minnesotans to know?
Jeff Jones: "We're a small school in Washington, D.C. People hear Washington, D.C. and I think often times they think in terms of an urban setting, but it's a very small, but a very nice traditional campus. We're up here in the northwest and it's a great situation."
As the NBA Developmental League's fall camps begin, three former Golden Gophers will participate in the action. Dan Coleman, Ralph Sampson III, and Paul Carter are all on camp rosters. Another former Gopher, Dusty Rychart, is playing in Spain.
Coleman will work out with the Skyforce, the D-League affiliate for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers. Coleman and the other 16 invited players will begin camp on Nov. 10 and conclude on Nov. 21. The team will determine its opening day roster on the final day of camp.
Coleman played for the Gophers from 2004 to 2008. He currently ranks 15th in school history in scoring with 1,317 points. Coleman earned All-Big Ten Honorable Mention acclaim as a senior. After graduation, he played on the Timberwolves' summer league team before signing with a team in Portugal. He has spent the past few years playing in France.
Sampson is the most recent Gopher graduate to try his hand at the pros.
Sampson was selected by the Reno Bighorns with the 11th pick in the third round of Friday night's D-League draft. The Bighorns are the affiliate for the Memphis Grizzlies, Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz. Sampson concluded his Gopher career last season as one of just five players in school history to compile 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, and 150 blocks.
Carter remains with the Idaho Stampede (affiliate for the Portland Trail Blazers) for the second-straight season. He averaged 10.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game last year.
Carter played two seasons with the Gophers before transferring to Illinois-Chicago for the 2010-11 season to be closer to his sister.
Rychart has been playing professionally in Australia for a decade. He currently lives in Cairns, where he plays for the Cairns Taipans. He writes a blog about his experiences.
Rychart played for the Gophers from 1998 to 2002. He ranks 17th in school history with 1,268 career points. He made the All-Big Ten Third Team as a senior.
Join Gopher basketball play-by-play voices Mike Grimm (men's) and Corbu Stathes (women's) as they host the second annual "Media Day Live" broadcast on GopherSports.com this Friday, Oct. 12 beginning at 3:30 p.m.
Mike and Corbu will host a wide variety of guests during the half-hour live broadcast, including head coaches Tubby Smith and Pam Borton, as well as Rodney Williams, Trevor Mbakwe & Andre Hollins from the men's team and Rachel Banham from the women's team.
Tubby Smith will be among the guests at "Media Day Live" Friday on GopherSports.com
Basketball fans can join in on the action by Tweeting Mike (@MikeGrimm3) and Corbu (@CorbuStathes) questions before the broadcast OR via the live chat feature on our Media Day Live page during the broadcast. Quotes from the broadcast will be live Tweeted from the official accounts of Gopher Basketball, @GopherBBall and @GophersWBB.
Basketball Media Day Live Guest Schedule (times approximate):
3:00 - 3:35: Tubby Smith 3:35 - 3:40: Trevor Mbakwe 3:40 - 3:45: Rodney Williams 3:45 - 3:50: Andre Hollins 3:50 - 4:00: Pam Borton and Rachel Banham
The University of Minnesota men's and women's basketball programs will officially begin the season by hosting "Gopher All-Star Friday Night" on Oct. 12 at Williams Arena. The event will begin at 7:00 p.m.; the entire night's schedule is available by clicking here. The Williams Arena doors will open at 7:00 p.m. in preparation for the evening's first event.
Come out to Williams Arena on Friday, Oct. 12 for the 2012 Gopher Basketball All-Star Friday Night!
As you enter the arena, register to win a trip for 2 to the 2012 Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.
One randomly selected winner will receive airfare for 2, hotel accommodations for 4 nights at Atlantis Paradise Island, tickets to the 2012 Battle for Atlantis tournament and more!
Register to win boxes and entrance slips will be available around the arena's concourse. Other prizes will be given away throughout the evening, including restaurant gift cards, Gopher apparel, an Apple iPad and more!
The Battle 4 Atlantis grand prize will be given away before the Men's Basketball Scrimmage and you must be present to win.
Following the debut of last season's highly successful "All Star Friday Night" event, the Gopher men's basketball team wants fans to save the date of Friday, Oct. 12 for the 2nd iteration of this fun event.
University of Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith travels all over the country to speak at various events but he looks forward to the summer and his annual trip to Ironwood Springs Christian Ranch in Stewartville, Minn. for the National Wheelchair Sports and Recreation Camp.
"I have really enjoyed the time that I have spent at Ironwood Springs and look forward to the trip each summer," said Smith. "Bob, the entire staff and certainly all of the campers, serve as an inspiration for all of us. "
Bob Bardwell is the Founder and Camp Director at Ironwood Springs and is an inspiration to all that have had an opportunity to meet him. In 1973 Bardwell was paralyzed from the waist down in a construction accident but that hasn't slowed him down.
A former collegiate wrestler at Pillsbury College in Owatonna, Minn. and member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, Bardwell has competed in nearly 300 races since the accident, including three-straight wins in the Twin Cities Marathon (1986-88). In all, he has collected 75 first place trophies as a racer.
As if that isn't enough, Bardwell is also an Inspirational and Motivational speaker and has authored a book - Marathons of Life.
This was the 26th annual National Wheelchair Sports and Recreation Camp. More information on the camp and Ironwood Springs can be found at www.ironwoodsprings.com.
Each Tuesday throughout the summer on the official Minnesota Gophers Facebook page (be sure to "like" us if you don't already!) we'll be highlighting a great moment in Gopher history to help populate our Facebook Timeline.
The Golden Gophers advanced to the 1990 Elite Eight by defeating UTEP, Northern Iowa, and Syracuse. Their memorable run ended in a hard-fought 93-91 loss to Georgia Tech. When Kevin Lynch's last-second three-point attempt missed, the final buzzer marked the end of a career for seniors Willie Burton, Richard Coffey, Melvin Newbern, Jim Shekenjanski, and Connell Lewis.
The most memorable member of the 1990 senior class was Burton. He led Minnesota with 35 points in the region final and remains the school record holder with 97 points in the 1990 Tournament and 171 career Tournament points. He led the Gophers in scoring for three seasons, and his career point total of 1,800 sits at No. 2 in Minnesota history.
Burton became a fan favorite at Williams Arena, known for his talent, passion, and the face mask he wore during the Gophers' 1989 Sweet 16 run. The face mask is on display in the T. Denny Sanford Athletics Hall of Fame at TCF Bank Stadium, and Burton's name will always be linked to two of the best seasons in Gopher history.
The 2012-13 season will be Minnesota's 14th time as a participant in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, but most of those games have been against just a couple different opponents. The Golden Gophers have faced Virginia four times, and this fall's matchup in Tallahassee will be their fourth Challenge duel against Florida State. Minnesota will look to snap its five-game road losing streak in the Challenge. Coincidentally, the Gophers' one road win in the Challenge came at Florida State.
With the announcement of the 2012 matchups today, GopherSports.com took a look back at the Gophers' Big Ten/ACC Challenge history against the Seminoles.
Bauer hit a key three-pointer late in the 2000 game.
In the second year of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the Gophers took to the road. Coming off a loss to Georgetown in the Hawaii Pacific Thanksgiving Classic championship, they had extra motivation to win this game. The Gophers came out firing early, shooting 51.9 percent in the first half. Minnesota led, 35-33, at half time. The hot shooting continued after the break--the Gophers hit six of seven three-pointers in the second half.
The game stayed close the whole way. The Gophers trailed by five with six minutes to go. They took a 63-62 lead on a Terrence Simmons three with under four to go. After the Seminoles tied it up again, Michael Bauer hit a three to reclaim the lead for good. Simmons led the Gophers with 19 points. The victory gave Minnesota a 2-0 record in the Challenge, and helped the Big Ten win.
November 30, 2004 Florida State 70, Minnesota 69 The Gophers led for more than 36 minutes after Vincent Grier (who led the Gophers with 23 points) hit a three for the team's first points. But Florida State cut into the lead and then ended the game on a 21-6 run. The visiting Seminoles led by four with 14 seconds to go, and then Aaron Robinson hit a three for the Gophers with six seconds left. After a missed Seminole free throw, the Gophers had one last desperation shot, but it did not fall.
November 27, 2007 Florida State 75, Minnesota 61 The visiting Gophers took a 22-18 lead in the first half before Florida State began to take control with a 12-2 run. The loss was the first of Tubby Smith's tenure at Minnesota. The Gopher freshman class provided some bright spots, with Blake Hoffarber scoring a team-high 12 points off the bench and Al Nolen making his first career start.