Mbakwe ends season with torn ACL

The senior forward was leading the Gophers in points and rebounds through seven games.

Charlie Armitz

Gophers men’s basketball senior Trevor Mbakwe will miss the rest of the 2011-12 season after tearing the ACL in his right knee in the Gophers’ 86-70 loss to Dayton on Sunday.

The 6-foot-8 forward had to be assisted off the court after an awkward landing in the second half. An MRI scan confirmed the tear Monday.

“My family and I would like to thank everyone for their support,” Mbakwe said in a release Monday.

A Preseason All-Big Ten First Team honoree, Mbakwe was the Gophers’ leading scorer (14.0 points per game) and rebounder (9.1 rebounds) through seven games in 2011-12. He also led the team with 13.9 points and 10.5 rebounds per game in 2010-11.

“You hurt for him, but you know he’s a guy that has the willpower and has been through it before and can recover again,” Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith said in the release. “We are certainly going to miss him. He’s having a great year. 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.”

Mbakwe suffered a left knee sprain in his 2007-08 season at Marquette that caused him to miss the season’s first 23 games.

He returned to play the team’s final 11 games, which made him ineligible to apply at season’s end for a medical hardship waiver — an exception that allows student-athletes that have suffered incapacitating physical or mental circumstances to receive an additional year of eligibility.

If Mbakwe, a fifth-year senior, wants to return to the Gophers next season, he may be deemed ineligible to compete for different reasons.

He meets all four of the criteria for receiving a medical hardship waiver, including the criterion that states a student-athlete must have played in less than 30 percent of the team’s games during the season in question.

Mbakwe has played in seven games in 2011-12, but the NCAA only counts five. That’s because tournaments — such as the Old Spice Classic in which Minnesota participated last weekend — are counted as one game, regardless of the actual number of games played.

The Gophers (6-1) will play a minimum of 28 games this season. Five games out of 28 is 18 percent, and that makes Mbakwe eligible to receive a medical hardship waiver by that standard.

However, because of Mbakwe’s prior legal troubles, there is a concern that he will be denied a waiver to the Five-Year Rule that limits a student-athlete’s NCAA participation to five calendar years.

Mbakwe is currently in his fifth calendar year as a student-athlete, and his fourth year of competition.

He played his first season at Marquette, his second season at Miami Dade College and his third season at Minnesota.

His redshirt year came in 2009-10, when University athletic director Joel Maturi announced prior to the season that he would not play until his aggravated-battery felony charge was resolved “in a satisfactory manner.” The charges were dropped and he played his junior season in 2010-11.

According to the NCAA, any redshirt season is considered a circumstance within a student-athlete’s control. A Five-Year-Rule waiver is typically granted when a student-athlete has missed two seasons because of circumstances beyond his or her control — or the control of the institution.

Two notable exceptions have arisen in Gophers athletics in recent years: Kim Royston (football) and Gabe Anderson (track and field).

Royston, a sixth-year senior in 2011, missed the 2008 season because of NCAA transfer rules — a circumstance that is considered within the control of the student-athlete. He then received a medical hardship waiver in 2010, when he broke his leg prior to the season.

Yet he was awarded a sixth year by the NCAA.

Anderson competed in 2010 as a sixth-year senior. She redshirted the 2006 season while battling an injury and then received a medical hardship waiver for her 2009 season, which she sat out while battling a rare form of cancer.

She too received a sixth year of eligibility.

Mbakwe’s case is more serious because of his legal troubles, so he would be less likely to have his waiver granted, should he file one.

The loss of Mbakwe is a huge blow to the Gophers’ already depleted front court.

Sophomore Mo Walker is still recovering from a serious knee injury he suffered last December, and Smith has said the team may redshirt the 6-foot-10, 289-pound forward.

Senior Ralph Sampson III injured his ankle during Minnesota’s 67-57 win against Fairfield on Nov. 17 and played just 10 minutes Sunday.

Redshirt freshman Elliott Eliason, who has played the bulk of the minutes in place of Sampson, lacks experience and mobility, and redshirt freshman Oto Osenieks lacks the size to compete with the bruising power forwards of the Big Ten.

Minnesota’s only other true big man, sophomore transfer Chris Halvorsen, has logged just six minutes this season.

There’s also the Gophers’ two 6-foot-7 forwards — Andre Ingram and Rodney Williams. Ingram, a junior college transfer, has played both small forward and power forward off the bench in 2011-12, averaging 2.0 points and 1.1 rebounds in 7.6 minutes.

Williams has played small forward almost exclusively, averaging 7.7 points and 2.7 rebounds in 26 minutes.