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Updated: November 1st, 2012 11:05pm
Trevor Mbakwe, Maurice Walker return in Gophers' exhibition opener

Trevor Mbakwe, Maurice Walker return in Gophers' exhibition opener

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Expectations for the Gophers men's basketball team this season are the highest they have been in coach Tubby Smith's six-year tenure.

With senior Rodney Williams at the forefront, the Gophers return all but two players from last year's team, bringing back 83% of their scoring (2152 of 2569) -- the second-highest number in the Big Ten behind Indiana.

Star forward Trevor Mbakwe is back, surgically repaired knee and all. Sophomore big-man Maurice Walker is finally healthy after a nearly two-year absence.

The pieces are for there for the Gophers to end a two-year NCAA tournament drought. A sputtering finish in the Big Ten and an NIT bid aren't going cut it.

And the Gophers, who made their debut Thursday in an 81-56 exhibition victory over Minnesota State-Mankato, understand the lofty goals that will surround them in the months ahead.

Thursday's game served as the starting point.

"We've had a pretty good sense of the expectations, but definitely getting out here against a different team you can definitely feel it," Williams said. "We were waiting for this game. I think for the most part we produced well."

It was the first in-game look at the experienced Gophers, and the results were promising, apart from a few chemistry issues with the secondary lineup combinations and 14 turnovers.

Smith went with the same starting lineup that appeared in last season's NIT championship game against Stanford, trotting out guards Andre Hollins, Joe Coleman and Andre Hollins, along with Williams and center Elliot Eliason. It was an early glance at the combination that the Gophers will likely open the season with.

Coleman, boasting an edge of renewed confidence, scored a team-high 21 points. Smith spread minutes around by consistently rotating through a multitude of different lineup looks, with 13 players contributing points.

But the most notable moment of the night came when Walker and Mbakwe entered the game for the first time, both receiving a hearty ovation from the several thousand fans at Williams Arena.

Walker looked relived to be on the court after his extended recovery from reconstructive knee surgery in January 2011, from which he endured numerous setbacks. But his long road back didn't seem to have brought any negative side effects. As the 295-pound he glided to eight points in the 15 minutes he logged off the bench, Walker allowed his sheepish smile to appear every so often.

Smith didn't hold back from expressing his excitement of having Walker healthy and able to add a needed physical presence to the team's frontcourt.

"He was grinning and having a good time. He just knows how to play," Smith said. "That's what he does well. He knows when to pass the ball. He's very patient in the post and he plays great position basketball ... He makes everybody better by being on the court."

While Walker is still in need of trimming down slightly from his big frame, Thursday was a showcase of the physical boost he can provide in the post that was missing last season after Mbakwe went down. For now, Walker will continue to be used as a key reserve, but the Gophers may be in a position to make a change as the season progresses.

Meanwhile, Mbakwe felt a similar sense of relief, finally able to take another step in his now 10-month rehab, as well as set aside the rash of off-court legal troubles he has dealt with recently.

"It's been a while since I've been on the court in an actual game," Mbakwe said. "It felt good to be back out there and playing with my teammates.

With his right knee encased in a large brace, Mbakwe battled through a layer of tentativeness as he adapted back to game speed. Mbakwe, who posted four points and three rebounds on Thursday, hasn't fully regained the form that made him the Big Ten's leading rebounder and constant double-double threat two years.

"I was concerned with how he would respond. He didn't really explode up like he had been in practice, to be honest with you."

The Gophers are confident his trademark aggressive play in the paint will slowly return, but in the short-term Smith is set to keep Mbakwe as reserve option behind Eliason and Williams at both power forward and center.

It wasn't a flawless tuneup for the Gophers, though ultimately the glut of turnovers and lackluster rebound numbers weren't enough to dampen the positives or the weighty expectations hanging over the team.

One more exhibition game awaits the Gophers before they open the season on Nov. 9 against American.

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