Tech-nically Challenged: Mbakwe Embraces Role as a Cheerleader

Posted: December 1, 2011 by Kodi in BBall, Gopher Redemption, NCAA

The Gophers helped propel the Big Ten to being victorious in their challenge against the ACC for the 3rd straight year

It was Minnesota’s first game after losing PF Trevor Mbakwe for the season

But the real question is what improvement need to be made without him?

The Minnesota Golden Gopher basketball team returned to the friend confines of The Barn to battle the Virginia Tech Hokies in the annual BigTen/ACC Challenge. It was the first game for the Gophers since losing their best player, senior F Trevor Mbakwe, who tore the ACL in his right knee early in the second half of the Old Spice Classic Championship game. With Mbakwe gone for the season Head Coach Tubby Smith and the Gophers are going to have to rely heavily on the rest of the team.

Ralph Sampson III will likely become a focal point for the Gophers down low but due to a nagging ankle injury the 6’11” 241 pound Center was a late scratch from this game. The cabinet is pretty bare for Smith and Minnesota who turned to redshirt freshman Elliot Eliason to fill the void for this game. Eliason is a 6’11” 242 pound (looks to be around 230) kid from Chadron, Nebraska who appeared in just 4 games coming into this matchup with the Hokies. He had played for just 48 minutes and scored 13 points, pulled down 15 rebounds, made 3 assists, swatted 2 shots and stole 2 balls.

Tubby was forced to go with a smaller more athletic starting 5, shifting F Rodney Williams to the 4 spot with Eliason playing the 5 and junior JUCO transfer Julian Welch got his first start at the 3 with the Hollins boys at 1 and 2. Minnesota has started a lot of their games this season extremely slow out of the gate and it would have been understood if that happened against Va Tech but it didn’t. Minnesota jumped out to a quick 10-2 lead which helped get their home crowd into the game after the mood had been so somber seeing Mbakwe on the bench in street clothes. Mbakwe still had an impact as Julian Welch said “it really lifted us up today when we saw Trevor come in and give us a little speech” and I am glad to see that Mbakwe has embraced his role as a cheerleader.

Tubby seemed to be tinkering with his lineup throughout the first half trying to see which players did well in certain situations. The entire first half was a defensive struggle and Minnesota had a 25-20 lead with just over 2:30 left but once again they allowed their opponents to go into half with a lead. The Hokies were able to knock off 8 straight points to head into the locker room 28-25. The crowd was deflated and many may have expected the tides to have turned for good but luckily the Gophers organizers had scheduled the perfect halftime performers.

I was baffled when the crowd came to a standing ovation for the quick change performance by a man and woman who danced while changing their outfits incredibly fast. Seriously? I am not lying when I say that The Barn had not been that loud all season long but a fascinating performance captivated the audience and forced them to cheer piercingly. I wish that I could go back and compare the cheer from the halftime performance to the noise at the end of the game. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was louder after the woman had dashingly changed into a rainbow dress under the fluttering silver confetti.

The second half was an offensive explosion compared to the first but the two teams had battled back and forth for 48 minutes and it was a one point game. At the time the Hokies were up 53-52 but Rodney Williams was able to post up his defender and get the ball down by the basket from Julian Welch and finished strong with a two handed dunk. Another basket by the Hokie had given them the lead with less than 25 second left but 4 clutch free throws by Welch and an errant three pointer allowed Minnesota to leave the court with a win.

It was Williams and Welch who led the Gophers to victory in the final minutes and they were also the Gophers two leading scorers. Welch finished with a team high 15 points going 5-6 from the floor, 1-1 from beyond the arc and a perfect 4-4 from the line. He added 2 rebounds, 1 offensive, had 4 assists and 2 steals while playing in a career high 32 minutes. Williams played 38 minutes and finished the game with 14 points, a team high 8 rebounds, 3 offensive, adding 1 assist, 2 steals, and 2 blocks, while shooting 6-7 from the floor and 2-4 from the line.

The young Elliot Eliason impressed many with his gutty performance and the kid seemed to always be in the right place at the right time, not to mention he had 2 incredible assists. He finished the game with 8 points, 7 rebounds, 3 offensive, the 2 assists and 2 blocks. He isn’t the biggest presence down under the bucket but against Virginia Tech he did what he needed to do and he wasn’t a glaring hole.

“Elliot bang, he hustles, he’s flailing around out there and he’s just always around the basket. . . He’s a good player, good decision-maker. He had a solid game” Smith said explaining “that was quite the load. The Gophers are going to miss Mbakwe and nobody on this roster can replace him but hopefully Sampson can get back on the floor and a rotation of him, Eliason and Andre Ingram will allow Minnesota to still be competitive.

I am not going to lie, the Gophers looked lost offensively and that is completely understandable but Tubby needs to find a way to produce points because 58 isn’t a total that will win you a lot of games. This victory is actually the lowest point total for the Gophers in a W since they defeated the Wisconsin Badgers 51-46 in March of 2009. Williams will have a lot of weight on his shoulders to produce but throughout the game with the Hokies he seemed to be more likely to pass it off immediately than attack the basket.

“I’m pretty comfortable with [playing PF]. I played it my whole high school career, so it’s not something I don’t know. But this is nothing like high school. I have to get a lot stronger, because I know I have to play there the whole season now. I’ve got to get in the weight room” Rodney Williams told reporters after the game. I may have to disagree with the young man. It isn’t his size that’s lacking, it’s his inability to hit a jump shot and defenses are collapsing on him in the paint and taking him out of the offense.

Tubby Smith may disagree with me because he said in his post-game press conference that Rodney “seemed very comfortable. We were able to get the ball to him close to the basket. He wasn’t settling for jump shots” or he knew he wouldn’t make them. Smith continued “Our guys did a good job looking for him. He played an unbelievable 38 minutes, so that’s the longest and the best. This is the best shape Rodney has been in”. Undoubtedly we are going to need a lot of minutes from the young man but if we are going to be a factor we need even more out of him.

Williams could be extremely dangerous if he was able to hit a mid-range jumper but he showed that he would rather pass the ball off. Confidence is key and if Williams could stretch the defense a little more by pulling them away from the basket it may make some opportunities for the soft inside presence of Sampson or Eliason, that or those two could throw on 25 pounds of muscle and grow some fucking balls.

If the Gophers want to be competitive they are going to need find their offense which includes a reliable three point threat and making their free throws. Minnesota was a dismal 2-13 from beyond the arc which can be explained by the lack of a true shooter but there is no excuse for them shooting 8-15 from the line. Minnesota does not have the opportunity to leave points on the floor and a team that doesn’t have a great offensive presence will not win games in the Big Ten shooting 53% from the free throw line.

Smith knew that his team fought through versatility “it’s been a tough week for us with the injury of Trevor, but I thought our kids really stepped up tonight and grew up a lot. This is a very tough Virginia Tech team. . . .A gallant effort by all our kids. I couldn’t be prouder of how they competed, took care of the basketball, executed, good precision when he had to. It was a good all-around game”. Tubby knows that although they played their first game Mbakwe is still going to be a factor.

“Trevor is a part of it, being there cheering the guys on, encouraging them. That was huge. The confidence comes when you’re persistent and you’re consistent in your efforts” Smith said. Hopefully he spends a little more time with the boys on the free throw line and keeps Williams after practice to get some more time in to work on that mid-range jumper. The Gophers next game is Saturday at The Barn against the 4-4 USC Trojans.

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