MINNEAPOLIS – Trevor Mbakwe's yearlong exile from basketball is finally over, which is why he couldn't stop smiling on Monday.
Mbakwe returned to practice for Minnesota for the first time since he was sidelined by an assault accusation, saying he is relieved to have the case behind him and actually preparing to play in a game again.
"I had the charge lingering over my head for the last 16 months," Mbakwe said. "I'm glad it's over with and I'm glad I can finally move on with my life and play basketball."
Mbakwe missed last season because of a felony assault charge stemming from an alleged incident while he was at Miami-Dade Community College in April 2009. The case dragged on for more than a year and Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi ruled the power forward could not play until it was resolved.
Mbakwe decided to enter a pretrial intervention program that will result in the charges being dropped upon completion of 100 hours of community service. He maintained his innocence throughout the proceedings, saying it was a case of mistaken identity. The decision to enter the program and avoid trial was not an admission of guilt.
Mbakwe also has to make a donation to a shelter for victims of abuse in Florida, but he said he expects to have all of his conditions met by the start of the basketball season.
He didn't hide his frustration in the legal process, or in the decision by Maturi and coach Tubby Smith to suspend him until his case was resolved. Mbakwe considered transferring to another school, but in the end decided to stay in Minnesota after a nomadic beginning to his college career that started at Marquette and went through Miami-Dade before coming back to his home state.
"I always wanted to be a Gopher and just glad I finally get that chance," said Mbakwe, who is expected to play against a couple of Canadian college teams during an exhibition trip to British Columbia in early September. "My teammates supported me through the last 16 months. I was happy to see them. It was very comfortable. I look at them as my brothers and I couldn't turn my back on them."
Smith said he could tell how frustrating it was for Mbakwe to have to wait through all the continuances. The coach sat down with him several times last year to try and keep him focused and upbeat.
"I know it's a year out of your life for basketball," Smith told him. "If you can get through this, you'll be a stronger man and a better player because of it. I think he's taken that attitude. A lot of people have a lot to say and it's hard. I can't imagine."
The Golden Gophers expect to be a better team because of it as well. Minnesota earned an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament last season, but lost in the first round to Xavier. Adding a 6-foot-8, 240-pound power forward like Mbakwe who specializes in rebounding and blocking shots — two of Minnesota's biggest weaknesses defensively — have them optimistic that better days lie ahead.
"Let's just say if we had a rebounding, post presence like he is, we would have won a lot more games last year," Smith said.
His teammates are just happy to see Mbakwe back on the floor, doing what he loves to do.
"It's so tough for a basketball player to get basketball taken away from you," guard Devoe Joseph said. "I know I love basketball and Trevor loves basketball. For him to sit out the whole year, me personally, I would be devastated. I'm happy he stuck with it and he's back now."
Mbakwe wasn't bashful about setting high goals on Monday. He said he wants to lead the Big Ten in rebounding and be one of the best rebounders in the country.
"It still hasn't hit me yet," he said of his return. "Once that first game comes and I put the jersey on, it's going to be a whole different thing. It's going to be exciting and I'm looking forward to it."