MINNEAPOLIS For the first time in almost a year, Trevor Mbakwe was back on the basketball court.
Mbakwe missed most of last season after tearing his ACL in the Gophers' game against Dayton on Nov. 27. As a junior, Mbakwe was the Big Ten's leading rebounder. He was Minnesota's top scoring threat as well. Without Mbakwe, the Gophers still managed to advance to the NIT Championship before losing to Stanford.
Mbakwe also had to deal with legal issues since his injury, including an arrest this summer for driving under the influence. But Smith did not suspend Mbakwe for any games this season, as the sixth-year senior played Thursday in the Gophers' 81-56 exhibition win over Minnesota State.
When Mbakwe entered the game with 8:48 left in the first half, he was greeted by a warm ovation from the Williams Arena crowd. They know how important Mbakwe is to this year's team, and they also know how much Mbakwe has been through over the last few years.
"That was very heartwarming," Mbakwe said of the applause. "I'm very thankful that Gopher Nation has been accepting throughout my ups and downs in my career. It was great to see that."
Not long after he entered the game, Mbakwe scored his first points of the night after grabbing an offensive rebound and putting it back to give Minnesota a 27-10 lead. But Mbakwe played just five minutes in the first half, grabbing a pair of rebounds during that time before returning to the bench for the rest of the half.
Mbakwe sat on the bench for most of the second half as well before checking into the game with 8:58 to play. He was called for a charge late in the game, but not after scoring another basket and picking up two assists.
Clearly, Mbakwe didn't look like the same explosive player he was before his injury, but he knows that will take time. The important thing Thursday was that he was back on the court in a game setting -- even it was for just 11 minutes.
"I was concerned about just how he would respond," Smith said of Mbakwe. "He didn't really explode up like he did in practice, to be honest with you. I think he was a little bit hesitant."
While all eyes were on Mbakwe as he returned Thursday, he wasn't the only one coming back from a knee injury. Redshirt sophomore Maurice Walker missed all of last year with a knee injury suffered during his freshman year in 2010-11. Walker tore the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) and meniscus in his right knee and had surgery on Jan. 11 of 2011. The Gophers were hoping to have Walker back for Big Ten play last season, but he suffered a setback with his injury.
Walker finished Thursday's game with eight points, one rebound and a block in nine minutes in his first game since Dec. 23, 2010.
"It was exciting. I was happy to be out there," Walker said. "It was just fun. It brought back old memories from freshman year. I just tried to be out there and do what I do best, be a big presence inside. It paid off today, I guess."
When Walker came out of the game in the first half, it was Mbakwe who replaced him. The two post players have been through similar issues in the last few years and could certainly relate to what the other was feeling as they returned to action.
"I was just happy for him," Mbakwe said of Walker. "I thought I was out for a long time. He's been out for a super long time. It was great for me to see him out there, scoring and moving around. Mo's going to be big for us this year."
Literally. The 6-foot-8, 295-pound Walker gives Minnesota the size and physicality that it lacked last season, especially after Mbakwe was injured. Now, with both Mbakwe and Walker healthy, the Gophers have a couple big bodies in the paint that should be able to make some noise in the physical Big Ten.
"We didn't have anybody of that size and that type of physical, aggressive bulk," Smith said. "Ralph (Sampson III) gave us what he could and Elliott (Eliason) gave us what he could. That's the difference. I think they'll be difference makers this year by being available to us."
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