LIVE › 9-11:59 p.m. Sports Center Tonight
NEXT › 11 p.m. ESPN SportsCenter
Midnight ESPN SportsCenter
Updated: December 12th, 2012 2:25am
Sandell: It's time for Trevor Mbakwe to return to Gophers' starting 5

Sandell: It's time for Trevor Mbakwe to return to Gophers' starting 5

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- The questions have followed Trevor Mbakwe in the two months since his return from reconstructive knee surgery.

Has he lost his edge? Can he ever be the dominant player he was pre-surgery? At what point, if at all, will he return to the Gophers' starting lineup?

Still three weeks shy of the one-year anniversary of the surgery on his torn right ACL, the senior forward has spent the first half of the season adapting to his new form. Mbakwe isn't the same player that was a highlight reel mainstay in 2010. Any thought that he would be at this juncture was not grounded in the reality of the situation.

But in slow doses, Mbakwe is proving he still possess the ability to be a defensive force and aggressive scoring option. Only this version of Mbakwe no longer can rely simply on physically overwhelming opponents. His knee won't allow it yet. However, in turn, he has adjusted to a more all-around style, picking his spots when he is needed to add a spark.

Mbakwe did just that in impressive fashion Tuesday in the Gophers' 70-57 handling of North Dakota State.

Bogged down by strong initial defensive effort by the Bison, the Gophers played a sluggish opening stretch, unable to get much separation on the scoreboard. While forward Rodney Williams took to the forefront offensively -- he would finish with a team-high 19 points -- Mbakwe came off the bench just over five minutes in to give the Gophers a pick-me-up on the defensive end.

"We got off to a slow start and I kind of wanted to come in and be the energy guy," Mbakwe said.

North Dakota State didn't have much of a solution to keeping him out of the lane. By halftime, he had totaled nine rebounds. Nine more would follow to add up to an impressive career-best 18-rebound performance. His impact on the offensive end eventually came in the second half, scoring 11 of his 14 points to tally his 25th double-double of his career, and second this season.

"He's learning to do other things, to develop other phases of his game, other than just sheer power," coach Tubby Smith said. "Sometimes you do that out of necessity, and I think that's what he's doing. He has been very patient in the post. He's been very unselfish to pass it out of the post."

Consistency remains a quality in flux for Mbakwe, but his progress is obvious. In the last six games, his rebounding and scoring numbers (9 rebounds per game, 11.6 points) are nearly three points higher than his season averages (6.5 rpg, 8.7 ppg). Mbakwe doesn't seem fully ready to return to a go-to role on a game-to-game basis, though he is tracking in that direction.

For moments Tuesday, Mbakwe was the focal point of everything that was going right for the Gophers. He emphatically laid claim to the area in front of the hoop, muscling his way through defenders, and even his own teammates, for rebounds. Though not afraid to pass it out to the open man, Mbakwe didn't shy from driving inside.

During the 21 minutes he logged, the Gophers outscored the Bison 44-22.

"He's a game-changer," guard Andre Hollins said. "He makes everybody's life easier. He's just that dominate of a player. We kind of sit back and let him do his thing."

The make-up of this year's deep Gophers' roster has aided Mbakwe's transition. No longer does he face the pressure to be the team's nightly standout. Williams has seen to that so far, along with steady contributions from Hollins and fellow guards Austin Hollins and Joe Coleman.

Yes, having Mbakwe as a quality sixth man has been key in the Gophers' rise to national recognition -- now 13th in the AP poll with an 11-1.

But he is nearing the time at which he should be enable to take the next step in his comeback: Reentering the starting lineup.

Smith has been hesitant to break up his starting five -- Andre and Austin Hollins, Coleman, Williams and center Elliott Eliason -- that has been intact for 19 straight games, dating back to last year's Big Ten Tournament. Smith has instead insisted on using Mbakwe as a needed boost off the bench and the anchor for the team's second unit.

Although Smith has given no indication of his intention to change Mbakwe's role, Eliason's struggles have made the senior forward's ascension back to starting lineup a necessary and logical development.

For the second time this season, Eliason had a zero point, zero rebound night. It was also the sixth game he has scored two points or less, bringing his season average down to 2.7 points per game. Smith has favored Eliason for his size -- 6-foot-11 -- and aggressiveness defensively. Unlike Mbakwe, Eliason is a true center. His biggest detractor though has been his inability to find establish himself on offense.

"One of the things we want to do is continue to do is to get Elliott better and stronger," Smith said. "He's got to get into the weight room in the next few days. But he does some good things for us."

Eliason can still be an integral part of the Gophers' frontcourt, but an extra wrinkle in the starting unit would be a welcomed addition and bolster the team for the grind of Big Ten play.

Mbakwe is that guy. He may never regain his former identity, but that doesn't matter. The potential to be a "game-changer" is still there. Even if it only appears periodically, Mbakwe can be the difference between a noteworthy Gophers run in March or another early offseason.

Smith isn't likely to make the switch yet, with one last non-conference match-up still to come (Dec. 22 against Lafayette). That doesn't mean it won't happen soon. The nine-day break following the conclusion of the season's first half might be long enough to inspire Smith to make a change before the Gophers' Big Ten opener against Michigan State on New Year's Eve.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
6266