Mbakwe maintains small role in opener

Andrew Krammer

Granted a sixth year of eligibility in March, Trevor Mbakwe seemed to have turned his fortunes around.

But seven months later, coach Tubby Smith’s best player came off the bench halfway through the first half and totaled 14 minutes in the Gophers’ season opener against American University.

Mbakwe is still nursing an anterior cruciate ligament he tore Nov. 27, and off the court, he was convicted of a DWI in September.

Smith said before the season that Mbakwe would come off the bench.

How much of the benching is punishment, and how much of it is injury? It’s unknown.

“As long as we’re winning, I think coach [Smith] is going to slowly keep bringing me along,” Mbakwe said Friday. “There’s no rush, especially in games like this.”

The 23-year-old scored four points on 1-for-2 shooting as Minnesota beat American 72-36. He added three rebounds, two steals, two blocks and a turnover.

Mbakwe’s lone field goal — an alley-oop pass from Chris Halvorsen — ignited the announced crowd of 10,172 on Friday night.

“Obviously I wanted to get a dunk on my first game back,” Mbakwe said. “I went up there without hesitation, and it felt good.”

He toppled into media row at one point during the game but said his knee suffered no setbacks.

“I think it’s a big confidence [boost] for me, diving on the floor,” Mbakwe said. “The biggest thing is going out there and playing the way I’m used to, not worrying about my knee.”

Smith said he doesn’t think Mbakwe is playing with any hesitancy and that “he’s doing the things we want him to do.”

Mbakwe will likely come off the bench again in Monday night’s game against Toledo.