By now it’s probably common knowledge, but the most horrific news that Gopher fans could hear this year was announced earlier today: Trevor Mbakwe will be lost for the season after tearing his ACL in Minnesota’s 86-70 drubbing at the hands of the Dayton Flyers in the Old Spice Classic championship. Not only is Mbakwe lost for the season, but his career as a Gopher is now likely over given this is his fifth year of eligibility. Indeed, for the second year in a row, the most important player on the court for the Gophers will be lost prior to the actual end of the season.
It’s rotten luck, and something the Gophers and their fans have got to be accustomed to by now. Royce White, Devoe Joseph, Al Nolen, now Mbakwe. Once again, the team will be forced to play a significant portion of its schedule without a full roster and without a key weapon. The Gophers were already in a precarious position to begin with: starting several freshmen, not having a true point guard, questionable shooting prowess. But with Mbakwe they had a true force to be reckoned with inside – a talent that opposing teams would have almost no chance of matching and would have to dedicate significant resources to stopping and containing. We saw it already this season where teams would double, triple and even quadruple-team Mbakwe to make sure he wasn’t the guy that would beat them. This, in turn, opened up the perimeter to at least give the Gophers a shot at making an open attempt or get some offense going.
But what now? The void is virtually impossible to fill. Much like Purdue and Robbie Hummel last year, you can’t just replace a preseason third-team All-American. Mbakwe was a special player that did things that few other people can do. His ferocity and physicality were almost tops in the Big Ten and Mbakwe made the Gophers a possible tournament team. However, that is a distinction the Gophers no longer have. In one instant they have gone from NCAA bubble team to possible conference basement dweller. And it’s sad.
Look, we don’t want to kid ourselves and pretend like this year’s Gopher team was going to light the world on fire and make a Sweet Sixteen run to close the season, because that just isn’t realistic. The team has definite promise, and is full of young talent that will do good things sooner rather than later. But struggles against teams like DePaul, Fairfield and Dayton don’t really bode well for Big Ten success. Granted, it is early in the season and many of the players are new, but going against bigger, faster and more veteran Big Ten squads was going to be a huge challenge for the team even WITH Mbakwe. Without Trevor the Gophers have no rock, no consistent performer they can rely on while other players figure things out. He is only one player, but he was one player that forced teams to change how they approached the Gophers. Opponents now only have to concentrate on making sure Ralph Sampson doesn’t make too many mid-range jumpers.
For example, the team will now have to rely on veterans like Sampson and Rodney Williams to carry the load, two players who are known for their inconsistency. And young players Dre Hollins and Julian Welch will continue to have to learn on the fly without a significant inside presence to rely on or shoulder some of the load. Unfortunately, the loss to Dayton may only be the beginning of how ugly this season could get. The 16-point shellacking was at the hands of a middling A-10 team on a neutral court; just imagine what the Wisconsin Badgers will do at the Kohl Center.
What I can’t get over, though, is just how ridiculous the string of terrible circumstances has been for this team. When does the break come? Seriously. Two years ago our top recruit robbed a freaking Macy’s and got the boot. Then our purest scorer last year took his talents to Eugene, Oregon. Further still, our top defender and offensive glue, Al Nolen, broke his foot and was forced out for the season, resulting in a season altering transition. And now one of the most athletic Gophers to come along in quite awhile crumples on a freak accident in the paint.
All I have to say is this: really? Really? Our best freaking player? When does it end? When we we get a legitimate shot to see what this team can do? When does Tubby get a chance to prove that he’s worth his contract? We’ve been waiting years for the chance and, unfortunately, the wait will have to continue.
It’ll be a tough transition but, much like last year after Nolen’s injury, we have to lower expectations. It’s no one’s fault, not even Tubby’s (who will no doubt catch flak for another “underwhelming” season) and Minnesota’s two goals this season should be this: 1) Don’t finish in the conference basement; and 2) Get the young guys as much experience as possible. There is one silver lining in all of this, thin as it may be. Guys like Dre Hollins, Eliott Eliason and Joe Coleman – players we will be relying on for years to come – will certainly get their chances to see the court and gain big-game experience. They have the talent to be big-time contributors down the road and getting them as much court time as possible will be critical to their development.
Lost in the shuffle of the injury was the Gophers loss to Dayton. It wasn’t pretty and the Gophers were getting supremely outplayed even before Mbakwe left the game. The Flyers ran Minnesota around the court, hit any shot they basically wanted and kept guys like Williams from making an impact. What was most concerning was that the Gophers looked completely and utterly lost without Mbakwe in the paint. Without an inside-outside option available, the team really doesn’t have much of an offensive identity. They certainly don’t have a Hoffarber-type that can pull up and shoot whenever and need someone in the paint who can take off some of the pressure. Couple the fact that the team doesn’t have a pure scorer and points are certainly hard to come by. Lots of players who can sorta shoot and can kinda play defense is recipe for a long, ugly season.
Let’s just get this over with.