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Updated: October 31st, 2012 6:53pm
Gophers freshman guard Wally Ellenson breaks hand, out 6 to 8 weeks

Gophers freshman guard Wally Ellenson breaks hand, out 6 to 8 weeks

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Gophers men's basketball freshman guard Wally Ellenson suffered a broken hand in practice, coach Tubby Smith told reporters Wednesday.

Ellenson was working with the guards in a rebounding drill on Tuesday when he caught his left hand in another player's jersey, bending it backwards and breaking a bone near his middle finger. Smith said he expects the 6-foot-4 Ellenson to be sidelined for six to eight weeks.

The injury comes only days before the Gophers' season-opening exhibition game on Thursday against Minnesota State-Mankato.

"He was having an excellent preseason practice and was doing some good things," Smith said. "We just don't want to get started this early with injuries."

Smith added that the break was clean and would not require surgery.

Ellenson, who was recruited out of Rice Lake high school in Wisconsin, was projected to see to early playing time this season, despite his newcomer standing and the Gophers' experienced corps of returning guards.

However, Ellenson's status this season is now in question. If Ellenson returns to full strength in the six to eight week range that team doctors set, he would likely have missed at least 12 games.

"It's too early to know right now if we redshirt him or not," Smith said. "He was playing well and probably wasn't going to be, but it is something we will probably consider at this juncture."

Ellenson's absence shouldn't dramatically affect the rotation at guard and at small forward. Sophomores Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman and junior Austin Hollins, who usually plays out at small forward, finished last season in the Gophers' starting lineup and are expected to begin the year in the same spots.

Senior Julian Welch and junior Maverick Ahanmisi are the team's primary reserve options in the backcourt.

Injuries have severely hampered Tubby Smith's teams in recent years. Last season, forward Trevor Mbakwe was lost for the season in November when he tore his ACL. A year earlier, center Mo Walker had to undergo reconstructive knee surgery, which largely contributed to keeping him for the last two seasons. Add in a multiple of minor injuries and the Gophers have had a run of bad luck.

Though Ellenson's injury has turned out to be relatively minor, senior forward Rodney Williams felt a brief spell of déjà vu when the freshman guard went down in practice.

"Initially, I didn't even see it, because we were doing post and perimeter shooting. Then we all came together and I was trying to figure out who was missing," Williams said. "They told me it was Wally and told me what happened. I was thinking, 'Oh, here we go again,' but this injury isn't as bad as the ones we've had in the past so I think we'll be alright."

Apart from Ellenson, Smith said the team has for the most part stayed healthy during the preseason practice slate, though freshman forward Charles Buggs was out last week with a sprained ankle. Buggs returned to practice on Tuesday and should be available for Thursday's exhibition.

Mbakwe to play Thursday

Mbakwe's tumultuous road back to the court will reach a new milestone on Thursday.

Mbakwe won't start the game, but Smith said the senior forward would log time from off the bench -- his first in-game minutes in almost a year.

While Mbakwe has spent the year since being granted a sixth year of eligibility rehabbing his injured knee, he has also been ensnared in off-court legal troubles. In September, Mbakwe was convicted of a DUI, stemming from his arrest in July. He was already under probation in Florida due to a 2009 felony battery charge he was found guilty of earlier this year.

Mbakwe was forced to go in front of a Miami-Dade county judge on Oct. 19, facing potential jail time for violating his probation. But the judge did not issue a jail sentence, instead giving him two more years of probation and a list of consequences he could face if he falls into legal trouble again.

Smith briefly suspended Mbakwe from the team in July, but he has since allowed the senior forward to return under what he deemed as strict team "requirements." Smith said Tuesday that Mbakwe has continued to follow through on everything they have asked him to do.

"He completed most of the things we (had asked of him) before he'd gone to Miami," Smith said. "The additional stuff that he has to do is quite extensive."

With his off-court problems seemingly behind him, Mbakwe is preparing to make his comeback from knee surgery complete. He is still at least a few weeks away from moving back into the Gophers' starting lineup. Smith plans to integrate him into the rotation at power forward and center right away but will do so slowly.

"He'll be playing with that group at some point," Smith said. "We'll be mixing and matching and playing a lot of different lineups, especially early in the season."

"Trevor has a ways to go yet. We want to watch his development and not push him too fast too early to make sure he's completely healed, but he seems completely healed now. Conditioning-wise, fatigue-wise, that's when injuries crop up, so we want to watch him very closely there."

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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