Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 11/29/11
MINNEAPOLIS One day after learning that leading scorer and rebounder Trevor Mbakwe was lost for the season, the University of Minnesota men's basketball team was faced with a tough question. Where do the Gophers go from here? Mbakwe, a senior forward from St. Paul, suffered a knee injury Sunday against Dayton in the championship game of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando. The pain and anguish on his facetold the story, but an MRI one day later made it official: Mbakwe tore his ACL in his right knee, ending his senior season and likely his Gophers career. "It's pretty sad. He's a really good player, a great leader," said redshirt freshman Oto Osenieks, one of two Gophers who helped carry Mbakwe off the court Sunday. "This is going to be tough without him, but we've all got to step up." Gophers coach Tubby Smith said Tuesday that he's never lost a player of Mbakwe's caliber at this juncture of the season. Mbakwe was named to the preseason All-Big Ten team after leading the conference in rebounding a year ago. "He could have probably been player of the year in the Big Ten and a Wooden candidate. He was a candidate for everybody's All-American team," Smith said. "That's a tough loss. But psychologically, I don't know that there's much else you can do except move forward. We can't look back."Through seven games this season, Mbakwe averaged 14.0 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. After Mbakwe, the Gophers' next leading rebounder is fellow senior Ralph Sampson III, who has pulled down 3.7 boards per game.But Sampson is dealing with an ailment of his own, as he's been hobbled by an ankle injury. Smith said Tuesday that Sampson who started Sunday against Dayton but played just 10 minutes might not play Wednesday when the Gophers host Virginia Tech for the Big TenACC Challenge. Without their two best post players one for the season, one for the short term the Gophers could struggle on the boards."Everybody has a chance to step up," said Osenieks. "We all need to do our best to rebound. He averaged like 10 rebounds a game, so we all need to grab two rebounds more to replace him."Indeed, Mbakwe's injury may provide opportunities for players like Osenieks and redshirt freshman Elliott Eliason to play bigger roles. The 6-foot-11 Eliason is currently third on the team in rebounding with 2.9 boards per game. He's also averaging 2.6 points per game, another stat that should increase."I've just got to step up and play a lot better," Eliason said. "I had a decent game against Indiana State, and then I had a really, really poor game against Dayton. That just can't happen any more. I've got to step up and get rebounds and finish around the rim. It just has to happen for us to be competitive."Without Mbakwe, Minnesota will be forced to use smaller lineups. Smith said Tuesday that guard Julian Welch would likely be in the starting lineup. He also added that junior forward Rodney Williams could move from the small forward to power forward position.Other than that, however, Smith doesn't anticipate many other roles changing."Not many. Not at all," Smith said. "A guy like Julian has played the one and the two. Andre (Hollins) has played some one and two. The status of Ralph will have more of an affect, I think. Now, the four, if you move Rodney, Rodney might benefit. It might help him get a rebound if you put him at the four spot."With a healthy Mbakwe, Minnesota was likely a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team and on the bubble for an NCAA tournament appearance. Without him, it could be a long road ahead for Smith and the Gophers.Smith was asked point-blank what his team's expectations are now that Mbakwe is gone. While fans may feel as if the Gophers' season is now over before it really began, Smith doesn't see it that way."Our expectations are the same," Smith said. "They haven't changed whether Trevor's here or not. Our expectation is to get better today at practice and play better (Wednesday) against Virginia Tech. That's about as far as my expectations go."
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