With Mbakwe finished, Minnesota looks to rebound against Virginia Tech

Ralph Sampson III (ankle) is questionable for Wednesday’s game.

Oto Osenieks makes a pass Monday, November 14 in a game against South Dakota State at Williams Arena.  The redshirt freshman is expected to receive more playing time while Trevor Mbakwe misses the season with a torn ACL.

Oto Osenieks makes a pass Monday, November 14 in a game against South Dakota State at Williams Arena. The redshirt freshman is expected to receive more playing time while Trevor Mbakwe misses the season with a torn ACL.

by Charlie Armitz

As the Gophers menâÄôs basketball team prepares for WednesdayâÄôs showdown with Virginia Tech, the news just keeps getting worse.

First, senior forward Trevor Mbakwe went down with a right knee injury in SundayâÄôs Old Spice Classic championship game against Dayton. Then, Minnesota lost the game 86-70 âÄî its first loss of 2011-12.

On Monday, an MRI scan revealed that MbakweâÄôs injury was an ACL tear that would cause him to miss the rest of the season.

Finally, there came news from head coach Tubby Smith that Ralph Sampson III âÄî the teamâÄôs only other inside scoring threat âÄî missed practice Monday and may sit out WednesdayâÄôs game with an ankle injury he suffered Nov. 17.

While the situation seems dire, Smith said the team wonâÄôt make any drastic changes to the teamâÄôs play.

âÄúEverybody has to understand their role and responsibility,âÄù Smith said. âÄúWe wonâÄôt change much; we just wonâÄôt have that inside presence that Trevor gave us.âÄù

Smith said he is wary of players trying to do too much to replace MbakweâÄôs impact on the floor.

âÄúThatâÄôs the biggest thing you have to guard against âÄî guys getting outside their comfort zone, trying to do things thatâÄôs not part of their role,âÄù Smith said. âÄúI saw that in the game [Sunday].âÄù

The Gophers were outscored by eight points over 17 minutes after Mbakwe left SundayâÄôs game. Their defense was especially suspect, allowing Dayton to score 49 second-half points.

Now, Minnesota (6-1) has just 10 healthy rotation players, and only one healthy player with multiple years of experience at Minnesota.

ThatâÄôs Rodney Williams, who Smith said could move to the power forward position in place of Mbakwe.

Although he stands at just 6 feet 7 inches, Williams may be the GophersâÄô best option at power forward. Andre Ingram (6 feet 7 inches) and Oto Osenieks (6 feet 8 inches) âÄî the two other options âÄî are both in their first year playing Division I basketball, and both have looked uncomfortable at times early in the season.

Osenieks, a redshirt freshman, saw extended court time Sunday after Mbakwe went down early in the second half.

He scored nine points in the loss, but had five turnovers. For the tournament, he averaged 4.7 points and 3.0 rebounds.

âÄúEverybody has a chance to step up,âÄù Osenieks said. âÄú[Mbakwe] averaged like 10 rebounds a game, so we all need to grab two rebounds more to replace him.âÄù

Smith also said Tuesday that other players might have to rotate to a different position while Mbakwe and possibly Sampson sit out.

He said Julian Welch will âÄúprobablyâÄù earn his first start with Minnesota on Wednesday alongside Andre Hollins in the back court.

Welch combined to score a team-high 40 points in three games at the Old Spice Classic. Hollins had 32 points, 30 of which came in the last two games.

Still, the focus for Minnesota âÄî and likely opposing defenses âÄî will be on its depleted front court.

Redshirt freshman Elliott Eliason is expected to start at center Wednesday if Sampson is unavailable. Eliason played as SampsonâÄôs backup at the Old Spice Classic, averaging 3.0 points and 3.7 rebounds in three games off the bench.

But he didnâÄôt record a single point against Dayton, and recorded just two rebounds in 13 minutes.

âÄúI just have to step up and play a lot better,âÄù Eliason said. âÄúI had a decent game against Indiana State, and then I had a really, really poor game against Dayton. That just canâÄôt happen anymore.

âÄúIâÄôve got to step up and get rebounds and finish around the rim. It just has to happen for us to be competitive.âÄù


-Virginia Tech (5-1) has won all five of its games against nonconference opponents, with its only loss coming to No. 5 Syracuse on Nov. 23.

Guards Erick Green (14.8 points per game) and Dorenzo Hudson (14.3) lead a balanced Hokies offense that has six players averaging at least 7.5 points.

The Minnesota-Virginia Tech game is one of 12 games in this weekâÄôs Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Big Ten won last yearâÄôs challenge 6-5.

-Smith said Tuesday that Mbakwe âÄúhad a little strain and stressâÄù to his MCL in addition to the torn ACL he suffered Sunday.

A team source said Tuesday that Mbakwe may have sustained damage in his MCL, but could not confirm whether his MCL was torn.

-Smith said he hasnâÄôt looked into the possibility of returning Mbakwe for a sixth year with Minnesota.

Smith also said that starting shooting guard Austin Hollins did not practice Monday after sustaining a knee bruise, adding that âÄúhe should be fine.âÄù