MINNEAPOLIS – Trevor Mbakwe breathed a huge sigh of relief in April when the NCAA granted the star Minnesota forward a sixth season of eligibility, giving him one more chance in a college career full of them.
That chance almost disappeared before his final season even started.
Mbakwe was arrested on July 1 for driving while intoxicated and was sentenced on Sept. 10 to one year of probation and community service. After missing almost all of last season with a torn ACL in his right knee, another run-in with the law was the last thing Mbakwe needed.
"He's lucky to still be around here," coach Tubby Smith said Friday, when news of Mbawke's arrest finally became public. Smith said Mbakwe was suspended from all team activities after the arrest and that he considered kicking him off the team before ultimately deciding to let him stay.
Mbakwe led the team in scoring and rebounding in 2010-11 and was considered one of the best big men in the Big Ten when he went down seven games into last season. Smith knows that his return makes the Golden Gophers a contender in the conference, so dismissing him from the team would be a big blow to their chances this year.
Smith also knows the 23-year-old Mbakwe is relying on this season to prove he is fully healthy and take a shot at the NBA.
"I know he made a mistake and we'd come this far with him and he had a serious injury," Smith said. "One of the things is I think Trevor has the possibility of having a livelihood in this profession in pro basketball, so I wanted to make sure we gave him every opportunity, as long as he does the things we expect and require him to do."
Smith said Mbakwe will start the season on the bench and said he's "still doing some things that he has to do that are required for him to be a part of this team." Smith would not specify what those requirements are, but Mbakwe is practicing with the team as they prepare for the exhibition opener on Nov. 1.
"It's something that happened earlier in the summer time," Mbakwe said. "Coach has been well aware of it. It's something that we're handling internally as a team and at this time I have nothing else to say about that."
Mbakwe declined to elaborate further on the incident, but did say he is looking forward to finally hitting the court again with a deep team that enters the season with high expectations. His knee is feeling great and he's been working out and is ready to roll.
"I'll definitely have those first-game jitters," Mbakwe said. "I'll definitely be excited and just ready to play again. It'll probably take me a little bit, but hopefully I'll be able to adapt pretty quick."
He knows he's in Smith's doghouse for his latest incident. He pleaded guilty in December to violating a harassment restraining order when he admitted sending Facebook message to an ex-girlfriend last January and also redshirted a season earlier in his career while a court case stemming from assault charges in Miami played out. Mbakwe entered a six-month pretrial intervention program without admitting guilt and completed 100 hours of community service before returning to play for the Gophers.
So he understands why Smith is not just giving him starting spot back.
"I trust Coach. I know he knows what's best for the team," Mbakwe said. "As long as we're winning games, if I have to come off the bench, that's fine with me. As long as I'm helping the team win."
Smith clearly was upset by the latest incident, going so far as to say that Mbakwe's status as a player the team can rely on is far from certain. The forward has a couple of weeks to get himself back in Smith's good graces before the games begin.
But he has some work to do.
"You're talking about a guy that played seven games last year," Smith said. "So he's got a lot to do to prove that he's going to be able to contribute."
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