Trevor Mbakwe stood glued to the Williams Arena floor, eyes focused on the rim, and swished a free throw as teammate Rodney Williams watched.
This was the scene for a Gophers athletics YouTube video last April. Mbakwe, an NBA prospect for several years, announced he would return to the Gophers for the 2012-13 season, citing “unfinished business.”
Mbakwe’s return gave Gophers fans comfort. If any player could break coach Tubby Smith’s squad out of its funk — five straight seasons without a winning Big Ten record or NCAA tournament victory — it was the sixth-year senior, a 24-year-old man whose determination and energy matched his skill and athleticism.
The Gophers valued Mbakwe’s leadership so much, they kept him on the team after an offseason DWI, his latest in a string of legal incidents. He was also returning from major knee surgery and had missed 66 games in his three years at Minnesota.
But half a year later, Mbakwe’s leadership is absent as the Gophers struggle through another underperforming Big Ten season (6-7). Minnesota has lost seven of its last 10 games, including Sunday’s 72-51 loss at Iowa.
The team has been healthy, so naturally, fans have blamed Smith and his obvious coaching deficiencies. They should be blaming Mbakwe, the more capable leader of the two.
Mbakwe is the most talented player on a Gophers team that once ranked No. 8 nationally. He’s the best rebounder in the Big Ten, and at 6-foot-8, 245 pounds, he’s better suited for the conference’s physical style of play than his teammates.
He proved that two years ago, when he led Minnesota with 14.1 points and 11.0 rebounds in the Big Ten.
But this season, when the Gophers have needed leadership most, Mbakwe has looked more like a freshman than a veteran.
Minnesota trailed Iowa by two points with 1.5 seconds left in the first half Sunday when Mbakwe lunged at the Hawkeyes’ Zach McCabe, trying to block a three-point attempt. Mbakwe leveled McCabe and missed the ball, leading to three free throws.
A week earlier, Mbakwe was double-teamed with less than a minute left and the Gophers trailing Illinois by one. He held the ball for four seconds before throwing an off-balance pass three feet over teammate Joe Coleman’s head.
Statistically, Mbakwe’s struggles are equally as puzzling. He averages fewer points and rebounds than he did two years ago, and his field-goal and free-throw percentages are down.
But what’s most troubling is his lack of accountability.
Mbakwe frequently says on Twitter that he’s motivated by people who doubt him. That list is growing longer each day.
He tweeted in November that he’d refund his scholarship if the Gophers missed the NCAA tournament. That offer would be more concerning if not for sophomore point guard Andre Hollins’ stellar play.
And like his coach, Mbakwe defers blame. He knows he’s capable of playing better, yet his postgame comments reek of confusion, irritation and excuse-making.
Hollins can’t save these Gophers, and neither can Smith. Hollins shows his youth far too often, and Smith’s coaching decisions appear to show his age.
The 61-year-old coach will likely be fired if the Gophers don’t win an NCAA tournament game. If he’s fired, he’ll receive a $2.5 million buyout and could choose to retire after a successful 22-year career.
Mbakwe’s future won’t be so bright. His NBA draft stock has already fallen, and unless he improves it, he’ll have to overachieve to earn a multi-year contract. As an undersized power forward, he’s not built to succeed in the NBA.
But if Mbakwe wants to have any shot, he’d best take care of his “unfinished business” now.