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NCAA Basketball Big 10 BasketballMinnesota Golden Gophers

Trevor Mbakwe Poised To Lead Way For Minnesota Golden Gophers

Michael Hickey – US Presswire

Tubby Smith believes his Minnesota Golden Gophers can compete for a Big Ten championship this season.

And for good reason. The Golden Gophers had a young lineup a year ago and dealt with a wave of injuries, including losing Maurice Walker for the season and having Trevor Mbakwe go down early in the year.

Yet, they still managed to finish 26-10 overall and play for the championship of the NIT. Not bad for a team that went just 6-12 in the Big Ten, primarily because it spent most of February tumbling through a six-game losing streak.

The Golden Gophers’ magical run in March ended with a 75-51 loss to the Stanford Cardinal.

If the Golden Gophers stay healthy, I agree with Smith that his team will at least be in the mix for the Big Ten title and it should be in the hunt for an NCAA tournament berth.

But if Minnesota is going to make noise, Mbakwe has to have a big year.

The veteran center/forward has been granted a sixth year of eligibility and appears ready to make his final go-round in Minnesota count. He will start the year coming off the bench though, after pleading guilty to a DWI charge.

It was Smith’s way of handling the problem internally. Initially, Smith considered booting Mbakwe off the team.

As long as Mbakwe stays focused on basketball this season, he will be fine.

He racked up four double-doubles before tearing his Anterior Cruciate Ligament against the Dayton Flyers last November and he will be a threat to turn in a double-double outing every time he takes the floor this season.

Mbakwe was averaging 14 points and 9.1 rebounds before the injury and I expect him to not only pick up where he left off, but to be perhaps end up as the top rebounder in the conference this year.

He seems destined for All-Big Ten honors as well and the experience and leadership he will bring to the table for the Golden Gophers does not come with a price tag. It’s priceless.

Sure, it could take him some time to get back into a groove, especially coming off such a brutal injury, but once he starts clicking on all cylinders again, Mbakwe will be a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten.

Not to mention the fact that the Golden Gophers will be a team no one will be able to overlook in the battle for the conference championship.

Brian Lester is a featured Big Ten columnist for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @BLester1993 or send him an email at collegehoopswriter@hotmail.com.