MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — When Trevor Mbakwe's right knee buckled beneath him in a crowd around the basket during a game two months ago, the Minnesota standout's college career appeared to be over.
He's done for the season, that's for sure. But as Mbakwe celebrated his 23rd birthday Tuesday, he confirmed he will petition the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility. His 6-foot-8 muscular frame and tough, aggressive game in the lane clearly make him a pro prospect, but he said he's enjoyed playing for the Gophers and appreciated the school's support enough that he would put off his NBA dream for another year.
"It's going to be a tough call, but it's something that I'm interested in," Mbakwe said.
The team's leading scorer and rebounder tore his anterior cruciate ligament on Nov. 27 and needed reconstructive surgery. Speaking to reporters for the first time since the injury, he said that night was "probably one of the hardest moments" of his life.
Mbakwe has been told he won't be able to play full-speed, five-on-five basketball until June, which would complicate his availability for the draft. The application process probably won't officially take place until after the season — he said he's begun to gather paperwork with the athletic compliance department — and approval is no sure thing. Purdue's Robbie Hummel got a sixth year after a pair of ACL surgeries, and in the Gophers football program, safety Kim Royston recently completed his sixth college season.
But Mbakwe's case is unique, since one of his redshirt years was not for medical reasons. He transferred to Minnesota as a junior but was forced to sit out the 2009-10 season while an assault case against him played out in court. He maintained his innocence and entered a pretrial program to avoid the charge and made his Gophers debut in 2010-11. There's certainly no guarantee the NCAA would give him a pass for that, even though his absence from the court that year was the school's decision.
He's not getting any younger, either, and he has a son to support.
"I have a family to take care of. It's not easy being a college student with all the finances and stuff," Mbakwe said, adding: "I'd never turn down making money doing something I love."
The timing of his recovery will play a part in his decision. If his knee isn't healthy enough in the weeks before the draft, it'll be tough to show team scouts he's ready for action.
"As long as I'm able to show that my knee is better than it was before, I think that's going to be the biggest question," he said.
For now, he's relegated to leg raises, using crutches to get around and cheering on his team from the bench during home games. He's glad the Gophers have rebounded from four straight losses to start the Big Ten season and remind the conference and the country they're still capable of winning without his presence on the court and in the locker room. They've won three in a row to improve to 15-5 overall and stay in the NCAA tournament conversation.
"They've been able to show people that they're a good team, that they didn't really need me as much as people might have thought. I'm just happy the season's going well and that we're still in the race," Mbakwe said.
They could use him on Wednesday, when they play at Michigan State. Coach Tubby Smith is 1-9 against the Spartans since he came to Minnesota five years ago, and the Gophers haven't won on the road against them since 1997, a season that doesn't count anymore because of the academic fraud scandal revealed two years after that.
Center Ralph Sampson III, the only other senior on the roster, said he's tried to warn his young teammates about how tough and physical of a night it will be.
"This is going to be a man's game," Sampson said.
Mbakwe would sure be proud of them if they can pull out a victory.
"I'm being impatient. I want to rush it. I want to get back on the court, but I know that's not what's best for me. I still have a long career ahead of me," he said.
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