Mbakwe prepares to come off bench

Andrew Krammer

It’s only been seven months, but Tubby Smith yields a different team than the one that made the National Invitation Run run in March.

However, Smith plans to start this season the same way he finished the last one — with star forward Trevor Mbakwe on the bench.

Smith plans to ease the sixth-year senior back into action by not starting him and limiting his minutes. Mbakwe is coming off major knee surgery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament Nov. 27.

“We need to watch [Mbakwe’s] conditioning and fatigue, because that’s when injuries happen,” Smith said. “You’ve got to hold [Mbakwe] back until we need him.”

In his fourth season at Minnesota, Mbakwe said he’s not thinking about his knee, even though he’s still wearing a brace to support it.

“It’s kind of annoying playing with [the brace],” Mbakwe said. “But I’m going to play hard and aggressive as I always have.”

He enters his final year of eligibility behind a pile of hype and the deepest roster he’s ever played with at Minnesota.

The problem: In the past year and a half, he’s played in nine games and has spent a chunk of time in county courts.

Fresh off a conviction for drunken driving in September, Mbakwe will have plenty of distractions outside of his knee recovery. He was sentenced Oct. 19 to two more years of probation and almost 500 hours of community service after violating a previous probation. He will also attend three Alcoholics Anonymous meetings per week and receive counseling from the University.

Aside from his legal obligations, Mbakwe was briefly suspended from the team after his July DWI arrest and had to fulfill some undisclosed requirements before returning.

When asked if Mbakwe’s punishments were severe enough, Smith said, “it is ’cause I say it is.”

Peyton Owens III, Minnesota’s director of student-athlete affairs, has assisted Mbakwe in his return to the team and said his attitude has changed.

“It’s brought him down to earth,” Owens III said. “He’s always been down to earth, but maybe this brought him down another rung.”