When the Golden Gophers lost 6-8 senior F Trevor Mbakwe in late November to a season-ending ACL tear he sustained in a tournament championship game against Dayton in Orlando, most observers expected a rough stretch would commence.
This team built a lot of what it intended to do this season around the Preseason All-Big Ten first team pick, who was leading the Gophers in scoring (14.0 ppg) and rebounding (9.1 rpg) through their first seven games. Mbakwe injured his knee in the championship game of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando in Minnesota’s first loss of the season, to Dayton.
As soon as Mbakwe left the floor, the Flyers started to exploit the void inside and that was a major factor in the 16-point Dayton win. The Golden Gophers, however, recovered quickly following the Dayton game and beat Virginia Techand USC in their next two outings.
The goal for Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith was to have his team realigned and adjusted to the loss of Mbakwe before the start of the Big Ten season on Dec. 27 at Illinois. It meant changes in the lineup, but also a more prominent role for 6-11 senior F Ralph Sampson III.
“He seems to be moving better. His practices have been better and I think his stamina and his wind need to get better,” Smith said about Sampson, who missed some time following the Mbakwe departure due to a minor ankle injury. “I thought we’ve got a good balance of scoring and getting guys prepared for games.”
Sampson said he understands how the loss of Mbakwe impacts the role he will have to play for the Gophers to stay in the hunt in the Big Ten race.
“I recognize now that the team is lacking in experience and leadership,” Sampson said, “but I think the team has taken it upon themselves to step up individually and be accountable for each other. We know who we are.”