MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota has an unfortunate habit of losing important players to injuries and off-the-court issues since coach Tubby Smith took over.
This hit to their NCAA tournament hopes was the most devastating of all: Star power forward Trevor Mbakwe will miss the rest of the season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, robbing the Gophers of their top scorer, rebounder and leader.
Mbakwe’s knee bent awkwardly when he was fighting for rebound position in Sunday’s loss to Dayton during the championship game of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla. Mbakwe left the arena in tears and on crutches, and on Monday the university confirmed the worst-case diagnosis from team Dr. Brad Nelson.
Mbakwe, a senior, will have surgery to repair the injury sometime in the next few weeks.
“Lord please get me through this,” Mbakwe posted on his Twitter feed on Sunday night, before an MRI test confirmed the ACL tear. In a statement distributed by the school on Monday, Mbakwe said he and his family “would like to thank everyone for their support.”
The Gophers (6-1) were unavailable for comment on Monday. They host Virginia Tech on Wednesday.
“Trevor’s done everything we’ve asked him to do in his time here at the University of Minnesota. He’s been through an awful lot,” Smith said in a prepared statement. “That says a lot about his toughness to be able to recover from the things he has already endured.”
Mbakwe’s freshman season at Marquette ended early because of a different knee injury. He played at Miami-Dade Community College the next year, finding trouble off the court when a woman accused him of felony battery for allegedly punching her in the face.
The case dragged on for a year, and he eventually entered a pretrial program though the agreement was not considered an admission of guilt. Mbakwe blamed the charge on mistaken identity.
But he had to sit out and take a redshirt the 2009-10 season with his legal status uncertain. Then with his powerful potential finally unfolding, Mbakwe was arrested last January for an alleged violation of a restraining order for sending a greeting on Facebook to a former girlfriend.
Smith took him out of the starting lineup for three games, but he avoided suspension and finished with 327 rebounds, the third-highest total for a single season in program history and the most by a Gophers player in 40 years. Mbakwe also led Minnesota with 13.9 points per game and was the best rebounder in the Big Ten.
Named to the Preseason All-Big Ten first team last month, Mbakwe was averaging 14 points and 9.1 rebounds before the injury this season. The 6-foot-8, 245-pound Mbakwe evaluated his NBA draft prospects in the spring before withdrawing his name and deciding to return for his senior year.
This is the latest in what has been a long line of stunning setbacks for Smith and the Gophers the last three years.
Last January, junior guard Devoe Joseph decided to transfer to Oregon after he was suspended for academic issues among unspecified violations of team rules. Senior guard Al Nolen broke his foot later that month and didn’t play again, the year after he was suspended for the second semester for falling behind in class. Prized recruit Royce White, now at Iowa State, left the program two years ago after legal trouble kept him off the court.
But none of those losses hit the team as hard as Mbakwe’s injury likely will.
The other frontcourt starters, 6-foot-11 senior Ralph Sampson and 6-foot-7 junior Rodney Williams, have been inconsistent and not tough around the basket like Mbakwe. Sophomore Maurice Walker, who is 6-foot-10 and 289 pounds, hasn’t played yet this season, still recovering from knee surgery that ended his freshman year early. That leaves freshman Elliott Eliason and junior Andre Ingram to fill in.
None of them has close to the experience or the strength that Mbakwe has.
“You hurt for him, but you know he’s a guy that has the will power and has been through it before and can recover again,” Smith said in the statement. “We are certainly going to miss him. He’s having a great year. He’s our leader. He’s been a big emotional leader for us. Our players look up to Trevor, not just because of his talent, but because of his work ethic, and the type of person he’s been.”
Smith added: “The team has watched what he’s had to deal with and overcome, and I think that endears you_me, too_to a person like him. He knows that we’re here for him, and we will do whatever we can do to help him through this process.”