Questions remain as Gophers open regular season

The Gophers have had all the ups and downs an offseason can handle, but now it’s time to play.

Minnesota forward Trevor Mbakwe scores in the game against Southwest Baptist on Monday at the Williams Arena.

Ichigo Takikawa, Daily File Photo

Minnesota forward Trevor Mbakwe scores in the game against Southwest Baptist on Monday at the Williams Arena.

by Andrew Krammer

For the Gophers men’s basketball team, the rollercoaster offseason has stopped. But there’s no guarantee the season won’t be just as bumpy.

The Gophers open their regular season Friday against American University at Williams Arena.

After routing two exhibition opponents by a combined 52 points, the Gophers and star forward Trevor Mbakwe will look to prove the sixth-year big man was worth the legal trouble and injuries he’s suffered in four years with coach Tubby Smith.

Recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered Nov. 27, Mbakwe has come off the bench in two exhibition games and combined for seven points on 3-for-3 shooting, six rebounds and two turnovers in 22 minutes.

“I liked the way [Mbakwe] moved on the perimeter,” Smith said. “I hope he reaches his full potential [this season]. It’s just really sad when he went down last year, because I thought he’d be a first-round draft pick [in the NBA].”

Mbakwe looked tentative in exhibition play, and he said his knee is “still coming along.”

“My goal is to get back to my old form — a guy who you can expect to get a double-double on a nightly basis,” he said.

His “old form” — Big Ten rebounding champion in 2010-11 — may be a fixture of the Gophers’ past.

But the NCAA granted Mbakwe a sixth year of eligibility last spring via a medical hardship waiver.

The senior, who is enrolled in graduate courses this fall, is trying to overcome more than just his injury.

Mbakwe was convicted in September for a DWI arrest over the summer.

Mbakwe was suspended from the team temporarily and sentenced Oct. 19 to two more years of probation and almost 500 hours of community service for violating his previous probation. The 23-year-old is also attending three Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week.

“If [Mbakwe] does the things [on the court] that he did previously, he’ll be fine,” Smith said. “[He doesn’t] have to do anything else, but that’s what my expectations are.”

Smith’s son and the team’s assistant coach, Saul Smith, was arrested for a DWI a month after Mbawke’s conviction.

Saul Smith’s scheduled court date is Nov. 9, the same day Minnesota starts its season. He is currently on paid leave until he can rejoin the team Nov. 13.

Aside from their legal troubles, the Gophers bring back a promising core of players. They return all five starters and two additions to their frontcourt — Mo Walker and Mbakwe.

Smith wanted to see his team work out a few kinks in exhibition play. But as much as the Gophers impressed with easy dunks and layups, they disappointed with poor shooting and turnovers.

Minnesota turned the ball over 14 times against Minnesota State-Mankato and 17 times against Southwest Baptist.  It forced 38 turnovers to cover its blunders and may need to do the same against improved competition.

But the Gophers’ perimeter shooting could be exposed quickly against teams who can keep up offensively. Minnesota shot 6-for-25 from three-point range in preseason play.

“That’s something we have to do a better job of,” Smith said of his team’s three-point shooting.

The Gophers played big during exhibition play, keeping their offense in the paint and outscoring opponents 112-34 down low.

“There’s been a lot of space in the lane,” junior guard Austin Hollins said. “We want to get to the basket first and get fouls. When we have the three, we want to shoot it.”

Hollins said it’s in his team’s best interest to play “inside-out” ball, meaning passing it to the post players first then back out if needed.

But although the Gophers have depth up front, Hollins said Minnesota will still play small and look to run the court like it did at the end of last season.

“There’s going to be a lot of subbing in and out so that we can still run up and down the floor,” Hollins said.

Chasing milestones

—Smith has 490 career wins. He will look to become the 18th active Division I basketball coach with 500 wins.

—Senior Rodney Williams is 188 points shy of 1,000.