The young Gophers gained bonus experience and extra confidence by reaching the NIT championship game, and right before that they got an even better prize — a sixth year of eligibility for Mbakwe from the NCAA.
Mbakwe and Minnesota made the formal announcement Monday: He’ll keep his professional career on hold and return for a second senior season.
“It gives me the opportunity to play another year of college basketball and hopefully contribute to a team that showed it can be dangerous. It also provides me with the opportunity to leave the university with a Master’s degree. That means a ton to me,” Mbakwe said in a statement distributed by the Gophers. “Not many athletes have that chance to get multiple degrees during their stay, and unfortunately it took an injury for me to have this opportunity, but I am going to take full advantage of it. I am excited to get back on the court with my teammates.”
The Gophers even posted a short video on YouTube, showing Mbakwe swishing a free throw at Williams Arena and turning to teammate Rodney Williams to say, “We’ve got some unfinished business.”
“He has obviously proven to be a dominant player in this league, and I have no doubt that he will return to the form that made him that type of player,” head coach Tubby Smith said.
Only center Ralph Sampson III, who didn’t play during the conference tournament or the NIT due to a right knee problem, and backup guard Chip Armelin, who has decided to transfer, are leaving. Mbakwe, Williams, Austin Hollins, Julian Welch and Andre Hollins could be a possible starting five if Smith prefers to play a smaller, sleeker lineup.
Elliott Eliason can play center if the Gophers want to go bigger. Joe Coleman and Oto Osieneks also saw significant playing time as freshmen this past season. Junior college transfer Andre Ingram provided some hustle in March off the bench. Guard Wally Ellenson and forward Charles Buggs are the new recruits. And 6-foot-10 wide body Maurice Walker, who hasn’t played since Dec. 23, 2010, due to a slow recovery from a right knee injury, will also be available.
Armelin’s decision to transfer opened up a scholarship. The Gophers are at the maximum of 13.
The challenge for Smith and his staff, then, will be figuring out playing time. This will undoubtedly be the deepest team he’s had since coming to Minnesota in 2007, a prime opportunity to finally finish high in the Big Ten and win an NCAA tournament game or two. But Smith has struggled at times to find the right combinations and substitution patterns that both maximize the strengths of his players and keep them confident and in rhythm, though injuries, transfers and ineligibility issues certainly haven’t helped.
Having Mbakwe’s muscular 6-foot-8 frame and tough, aggressive game in the lane back for another year will be a big boost. After leading the Gophers in scoring and the conference in rebounding in 2010-11, Mbakwe was a preseason All-Big Ten pick. But his right knee buckled beneath him in a crowd around the basket seven games into his senior year, and he needed reconstructive surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
After enduring his latest challenge, he’s back to finish the college career he started in 2007 when the native of St. Paul, Minn., arrived at Marquette as a freshman. He was hurt most of that season. Then he played at Miami-Dade Community College, where a felony assault charge against him originated. He redshirted the following year while that case played out in court and he steadfastly maintained his innocence. Then, after entering a six-month pretrial intervention program without admitting guilt and completing 100 hours of community service, he was finally cleared to join the Gophers in 2010.
He still has his sense of humor. An active Twitter user, Mbakwe posted several self-deprecating jokes Monday about his age. He’ll turn 24 in the middle of next season and has a young son, Makhi. Mbakwe tweeted that he knows every university professor by their first names and that his first game at Marquette was actually filmed in black and white.