MINNEAPOLIS – Trevor Mbakwe's return from a knee injury has received plenty of attention and is considered the key to Minnesota's hopes of returning to the NCAA tournament this year.
The Golden Gophers will likely need a little Mo-mentum from a less heralded comeback to get there as well.
Big man Maurice Walker will play his first meaningful game since 2010 on Friday night when Minnesota opens the non-conference season against American. He tore the PCL and meniscus in his right knee as a freshman, then missed all of last season as well while dealing with complications from the injury.
The 295-pounder's presence is expected to add some serious bulk and muscle to a frontcourt that severely lacked both with Walker and Mbakwe out last season. Ralph Sampson III graduated as one of the most criticized players in the program's history, with fans frustrated by his seeming unwillingness to assert himself down low. And freshman Elliott Eliason gave plenty of effort, but the talent and experience just wasn't there.
That shouldn't be a problem this season. Mbakwe was a first-round draft pick before tearing his left ACL early last season and Walker brings some nifty footwork and a couple of nice big elbows to throw around in the rough and tumble Big Ten.
"We didn't have anybody that size and that type of physical aggressiveness and bulk," coach Tubby Smith said. "Ralph gave us what he could. And Elliott gave us what he could. That's the difference, and I think they'll be difference-makers this year by being available to us."
In his first game action in nearly two years, Walker scored eight points in 11 minutes during an exhibition victory over Minnesota State, Mankato earlier this month. It's going to take him some time to work off the rust from such a long time away from the game, but he was encouraged by how quickly things started coming back to him, even if it was against an overmatched opponent.
It was also clear just how long it's been for Walker to be out of the game. In college, two years is a lifetime, and it felt that way to him.
"It was exciting. I was happy to be out there," Walker said. "It was just fun. It brought back old memories from freshman year. I just tried to be out there and do what I do best: be a big presence inside."
Walker should have plenty of time to work his way back into a rhythm at the start of the non-conference season. The Gophers open with lightweights American, Toledo and Tennessee State. He'll need to continue getting into game shape, with coaches wanting him to drop at least another 10 pounds from his oversized frame.
"He still doesn't have the lift right now," Smith said. "He's got to still continue to trim down."
He also has to work on his timing and chemistry with point guard Andre Hollins, a sophomore who hasn't yet played a meaningful game with the big guy in the middle. He'll also have to regain the feel for playing alongside and off of Mbakwe.
"I thought I was out for a long time," Mbakwe said. "He's been out for a super-long time. It was great for me to see him out there scoring and moving around. Mo is going to be big for us this year."
If both Walker and Mbakwe are able to come back at full strength, the Gophers should be much better equipped to handle the meat and potatoes of their schedule. It will start with a trip to the Bahamas for a tournament opener against Duke, but will become imperative when Minnesota starts conference play in the smashmouth Big Ten.
Too often last year they were pushed around by bigger, stronger, more experienced teams. That has to change if they want to return to the tournament.
"He's a big body. People tend to run into him, and it's not very successful," Mbakwe said. "So we're going to need Mo, and we just need him to stay healthy and keep playing the way he's been playing."
The Spartans, Hoosiers and Boilermakers aren't going to have Sampson to push around anymore. When they come into Williams Arena this season, they can expect the Gophers to push back.
"Playing against Michigan State, playing against Illinois, Indiana, they've got a lot of big-bodied guys," guard Joe Coleman said. "So having Mo out there is definitely a good thing."
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