Zulgad: Trevor Mbakwe is able to quiet his critics for at least one night
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Former Marquette basketball coach Tom Crean figured Trevor Mbakwe's stay at the Milwaukee school wouldn't be a long one when the forward arrived in 2007. "I didn't feel that we would have him more than two or three year's tops," before turning pro, Crean said.
On Tuesday night, Crean wished that he had been right about how long Mbakwe's college career would last.
Crean, now the coach at Indiana, watched as Mbakwe played a key role in the Minnesota Gophers' stunning 77-73 upset over the top-ranked Hoosiers at Williams Arena. It was the Gophers' first victory over a No. 1-rated team in the Associated Press poll since they beat Illinois on Jan. 26, 1989 at Williams Arena.
Mbakwe finished with a game-high 21 points and 12 rebounds in 25 minutes and easily won the physical matchup inside against Indiana star Cody Zeller, who had only nine points and seven rebounds in 32 minutes.
"I hope everybody that has (been critical of Mbakwe) will back off a little bit," Crean said. "He's a high level, high energy tough guy that plays the game at a desperate level. Obviously, I'm biased but there's no shame in that. He's been in college a long time and he's endured a lot."
Crean and Mbakwe parted company long ago.
Crean left Marquette to take over at Indiana after the 2007-08 season. Mbakwe bolted from Marquette in August 2008 after missing much of the previous season because of a knee injury. A native of St. Paul, Mbakwe landed at Miami-Dade Community College before transferring to Minnesota.
Mbakwe now finds himself in his sixth season of college eligibility, the result of a legal issue he encountered after a year in Miami and another knee injury that ended his "senior season" in 2011-12 after only seven games.
Crean is right in saying that of late many have been critical of the 24-year-old Mbakwe. One of those critics has been Gophers coach Tubby Smith, who after an embarrassing 71-45 loss at Ohio State last week admitted his team had little senior leadership.
The loss to the Buckeyes was the Gophers' fourth in five games and came on the heels of a 72-51 defeat at Iowa.
"We were pretty embarrassed after our last two losses and this was a great opportunity to have the No. 1 team coming in, playing on national television and it was a chance for us to kind of turn our season around," Mbakwe said. "A lot of guys stepped up and we came ready to play, the crowd was unbelievable. We kind of wanted to feed off of them and it was a big opportunity for us and we finished it off."
Mbakwe helped set the tone early by scoring the Gophers' first six points of the game and showing that he was willing to use his 6-foot-8, 245-pound frame to be a force inside against the 7-foot, 240-pound Zeller.
Mbakwe also was more than willing to admit he wasn't happy with his recent performance.
"I didn't feel I was playing up to my potential lately," he said. "I just wanted to come out and be aggressive. I don't think I had been aggressive as of late. ... I was able to get some opportunity to get open looks and I was able to knock them down. That was one (key); I was able to be more aggressive."
The Gophers were leading 16-10 with 13 minutes, 20 seconds left in the opening half when Mbakwe exited and was replaced at center by Elliott Eliason. The Hoosiers went on a 10-0 run and when Mbakwe came back in with just under 12 minutes left the Gophers trailed 20-16.
Minnesota's struggles with Mbakwe out caused the social media world to light up with questions about what Smith was doing by taking out the guy who was clearly providing a spark for his team.
But those who were near the Gophers bench said it was Mbakwe who pulled himself.
"We both," made that decision," Mbakwe said. "I got kind of winded. I know coach doesn't mind going to Elliott. He kind of stepped up big. It was one of those times I got kind of winded."
Mbakwe finished the first half with 12 points and six rebounds in 15 minutes. "I thought our guys were focused on the right things," Smith said. "Trevor Mbakwe set the tone early on with his aggressive play and his ability to score around the basket."
Asked what the key to Mbakwe's success was on Tuesday, Smith said: "Getting the ball, getting some touches inside. If he's played one-on-one, he's pretty effective. I thought that's why he was more effective. We were able to get the ball to him early on, early in possessions.
"He was able to make some shots. He's sort of struggled making shots around the basket lately. And he made his free throws early and that gives you a sense of, 'Hey, I'm here tonight. I'm on my game.' I think everybody else kind of picked up on that as well."
Point guard Andre Hollins called Mbakwe's performance "awesome," adding, "we had to keep getting him the ball, keep feeding him the ball. He was better than Cody Zeller today."
The victory put the Gophers' victory at 19-9 overall and 7-8 in the Big Ten and almost certainly clinched them a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2009-2010 season. Mbakwe credited the announced crowd of 14,625 with creating enough noise to help the Gophers and enjoyed seeing the students storm the court after the final horn.
"It's great," he said. It's something you see on TV all the time and you always want the opportunity, especially in college. We finally got it. We had a couple of number one teams come in here in the past and we haven't played too well. It was definitely great. It got pretty hot, but it was worth it."
This will mark Mbakwe's first appearance in the tournament with the Gophers.
He admitted that it seemed like he has been at Minnesota for "an eternity." However, if Tuesday's victory and a berth in the NCAA tournament is the reward then it was well worth the wait.
"Definitely," Mbakwe said. "This season has been awesome. We went through a tough stretch and we had some tough losses, but just the way we bounced back is unbelievable. We showed that we're one of the best teams in the country and we have to build off this. We can't have any letdown, we have another tough game against Penn State and we have to keep building. Hopefully, this changes the season around for the better."
As for seeing his former coach, Mbakwe admitted there was "extra incentive" to beat Crean. "We were able to trash talk a little back and forth but it was fun," Mbakwe said. "I was able to beat him."
That was not lost on Crean.
"That's a great man, that's one of the best rebounders in this country and certainly in our league and he was the toughest guy on the court tonight," Crean said. "We did not answer the bell there."