When I heard that Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe had torn the ACL in his right knee and will miss the rest of the season as a result, I had flashbacks. And they were all based off phone calls I received during my time covering that team.
The star recruit who delivered a farewell address to the program and its fans through YouTube. Seriously.
The Mom who traveled from Canada and contacted me at 3 a.m. to confirm that her son, another highly touted recruit under Tubby Smith, had played his last game for the Gophers. The Dad who wanted to know how his son had ended up in the academic bind that would force him to miss the majority of the 2009-10 season. The same Dad who called a year later to say his son had suffered a broken foot and would miss most of the following year, too.
Monday’s news felt familiar for me and others who’ve tracked Smith’s Gophers. Not the specific injury, but the damage to the program’s prospects.
When Minnesota’s season was separated from its potential as Mbakwe clutched his right knee, I was shocked but not surprised, if that makes sense. I couldn’t believe that the injury had occurred at this juncture of the season.
But bad news has become the norm at Minnesota. Few teams have experienced the breadth of Minnesota’s tough luck in recent years.
Check out this timeline:
- Royce White, the program’s first five-star recruit in nearly a decade, announces his decision to quit college basketball through YouTube. Minnesota’s 2009 Mr. Basketball eventually leaves the program and signs with Iowa State without suiting up for the Gophers.
- Mbakwe is suspended for the entire season due to legal issues connected to a felony assault charge in Miami. He never pled guilty. By entering a pretrial intervention program, he’s reinstated by athletic director Joel Maturi.
- Starting point guard Al Nolen is ruled academically ineligible for the entire second semester.
- Justin Cobbs and Paul Carter transfer.
- Devoe Joseph transfers to Oregon in January.
- Nolen misses the majority of the season with multiple foot injuries. The Gophers lose 10 of their last 11 games. They started the year with a Puerto Tip-Off championship anchored by wins over North Carolina and West Virginia.
- Colton Iverson transfers to Colorado State
- Mbakwe suffers a torn ACL in the team’s seventh game. Smith has had missing parts for three years. Injuries, transfers and other issues have rocked the program. Mbakwe’s injury, however, is Smith’s biggest setback because of his significance to Minnesota’s slim postseason hopes. Past Gophers teams had veterans who’d experienced major setbacks in the past. They knew how to recover and adjust.
But this is Tubby’s youngest team. Mbakwe was an old man on a squad with multiple newcomers. Someone will have to step up, but most of the candidates are still learning their roles and transitioning to Division I basketball.
Junior Rodney Williams and senior Ralph Sampson III will face the most pressure to help the program avoid a collapse. But their time at Minnesota has been defined by inconsistency. Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins are tough young guards who continue to mature. And Julian Welch has gotten off to a strong start, too.
They can help.
But Mbakwe was The Man for the Gophers. A potential All-American. One of the nation’s top rebounders. And after experiencing international competition and high-level instruction at top camps during the offseason, he was a more polished player on offense.
Now, the Gophers will have to find a way to compete without him.
Bad luck is one thing. But at what point is a team considered to be cursed?
You have to wonder why things continue to go south for Smith and the Gophers.
This is just bizarre.