Column: Fallen star’s misfortune could be blessing for U

by Derek Wetmore

When Gophers forward Trevor Mbakwe crumpled to the floor in agony Sunday with a torn ACL, the menâÄôs basketball teamâÄôs season effectively ended.

The team will still play out the requisite regular season slate, but the prospect of this team making the NCAA tournament without its only go-to player is unthinkable.

âÄúWoe is us,âÄù cried the Gophers faithful. âÄúLeave it to Minnesota sports,âÄù they moaned.

But MbakweâÄôs misfortune may actually be a good thing for the maroon and gold.

The next interesting development to unfold in this saga will be whether the NCAA will allow him another year of eligibility âÄî or if heâÄôd even want it.

Minnesota (6-1) was going to be a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team even with its superman in the post and his nightly double-doubles. It was a fringe NCAA tournament team with no hope of making a deep run in The Dance.

Next year, it has the potential to take a step forward, while the conferenceâÄôs elite may come back toward the pack. Jared Sullinger, Jordan Taylor and Draymond Green will likely enter the NBA Draft. PurdueâÄôs Robbie Hummel, who suffered two ACL tears on the same knee, should also make a bid for the next level.

Through seven regular season games, the Gophers havenâÄôt shown much promise besides Mbakwe and now the teamâÄôs primary threat is anyoneâÄôs guess. The team lacked a secondary scoring option when Mbakwe was healthy and struggled in tight games against should-be inferior opponents.

Next year Minnesota will have more experience across the board, most notably at point guard. It should also have a senior scoring option in Rodney Williams, though he too could test the NBA waters this offseason.

A team spokesperson said Monday it was too early to tell whether the NCAA would grant a medical hardship waiver, or if Mbakwe would even request.

If IâÄôm Mbakwe, the choice is simple: IâÄôd come back in a year if theyâÄôd let me.

The NBA Draft is littered with promising talents whose draft stock fell because of injury.

Take PittsburghâÄôs DeJuan Blair for example. He was a first-round talent with enough of an injury history to deter scouts, and he eventually fell into the second round at No. 37 overall.

Under the old collective bargaining agreement, a majority of first-round picks earned more than $1 million. Second-round picks had non-guaranteed contracts and earned significantly less. That hasnâÄôt changed with the new deal.

Had he put in a healthy, productive season this year, Mbakwe would have been a top-20 pick. As it is, likely no team will take a first-round flier and give him a guaranteed contract.

The choice comes down to two options: ditch the college drama for a shot at second-round cash and a potential spot on an NBA team (likely an enticing proposition) or plead with the NCAA to allow a sixth year in which to complete his eligibility and work his way back to first-round money.

ItâÄôs far from a guarantee that Mbakwe will agree with me that itâÄôs his best course of action âÄî he may well be fed up with all the roadblocks his college career has presented.

ItâÄôs also no sure thing the NCAA would grant him a sixth year should he seek it, given that his redshirt season was within the University of MinnesotaâÄôs control. He sat out the 2009-10 season while since-dropped assault charges were pending litigation in Miami

HeâÄôd be old âÄî 24 âÄî by NBA Draft prospect standards next season, but a year of dominating the Big Ten could do wonders for repairing his now-dissolved draft stock.

The Gophers could also be competitive next year in a weaker Big Ten and would obviously be better if he were to return.

They werenâÄôt going anywhere even with him this year.