UCLA's Wear says handling Mbakwe shouldn't be 'that big of a problem'
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Gophers senior forward Trevor Mbakwe is a target.
UCLA's Travis Wear recognizes that. The Bruins' starting forward is aware the 6-foot-8, 245-pound Mbakwe is the Gophers' primary interior threat, but Wear bluntly admits he doesn't see that being issue when the two big men meet Friday in their No. 6 vs. No. 11 NCAA tournament match-up.
"He's big. He's going to be a challenge, but if I force him off the block I don't think he'll pose that big of a problem compared to some of the of the other guys I played against in the PAC-12," Wear said Thursday during UCLA's new conference at the Frank Erwin Center.
That is a confident, but heavy-handed challenge of sorts to direct at one of the top forwards to come out of the Big Ten this season.
Mbakwe is reason No. 1 why the Gophers have been among the nations' best rebounding teams, ranked eighth in Division I in rebound margin (8.2). Mbakwe, who averages 10.7 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, topped Indiana standout Cody Zeller for the Big Ten rebounding title
Not a stranger to heavy scrutiny on and off the court in his six-year collegiate career, Mbakwe offered a level but firm rebuttal to Wear's claim.
"I've been playing basketball long enough and I've played with the best. I could care less what he says," Mbakwe said before the Gophers late practice session on Thursday. "I know there is going to be a lot of pressure. He has a lot to say. We'll see tomorrow night ... I don't really put much into it. I have enough motivation as it is."
Regardless, Wear's slight, whether or not it was intended, was not lost on the Gophers.
UCLA addressed the media with an obvious confidence that it can match and surpass the Gophers' physical Big Ten style of play. Wear, along with starting guard Larry Drew II and coach Ben Howland, reiterated numerous times that finding a way to counter the Gophers on the offensive and defensive glass stands as the primary objective of their game plan.
If the Gophers have an advantage Friday, besides the fact that they are surprisingly three-point favorites as the 11-seed, it is their aggressiveness in gaining second chance opportunities. Converting on those chances hasn't always been a fluid, but maintaining a rebounding advantage could be key to hanging with, and ultimately outlasting UCLA.
The Bruins, who harness a transition, offense-first mindset, have struggled at times to counter solid rebounding teams. UCLA finished last in the PAC-12 in both defensive rebounds and rebounding margin.
Wear pointed to the Gophers' shooting inconsistencies as an area that the Bruins are focusing on matching their opponent inside in order to force Minnesota to go to the perimeter.
"They don't shoot the ball particularly well, which means it's going to be a lot of misses," Wear said. We need to box them out. We need to go get the ball and not leak out early in transition."
Mbakwe has arguably been the Gophers' most consistent and reliable player in the closing stretch of the season. But foul trouble haunted the sixth-year senior in Minnesota's last-second loss to Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.
After picking up his second foul early in the first half, Mbakwe landed on the bench up until halftime. Without him, the Gophers' inside game fell into shambles, leading to a deficit that the team spent much of the second half trying to rebound from. Keeping him in the game and paired against UCLA's post players is crucial cog in allowing Minnesota to have a chance at its first NCAA tournament win in 16 years.
While Mbakwe refrained from engaging in back and forth battle of words with Wear, his teammates were clear that any disrespect they might have sensed could provide the edge the Gophers have been lacking in the season's closing weeks.
"We'll see what he has to say about that after the game tomorrow," senior Rodney Williams said.