Minnesota coach Tubby Smith may give Trevor Mbakwe his first start since being arrested last week. The Big Ten’s leading rebounder, though, said he’s also satisfied with coming off the bench again.
Whatever his role, Mbakwe will try to help the 15th-ranked Golden Gophers win their first game as a Top 25 team in three weeks Saturday night at Michigan.
During a court appearance Thursday, Mbakwe pleaded not guilty to the charge of violating his ex-girlfriend’s restraining order but admitted sending her a message on Facebook, which led to his arrest Jan. 11. His next appearance is scheduled for Feb. 7.
Smith and athletic director Joel Maturi decided against suspending the junior forward, but the Minnesota coach took him out of the starting lineup as punishment.
“It was just me trying to reach out and be generous, but it backfired on me,” Mbakwe said. “I know it was really stupid on my part. I’m just glad they gave me a chance to play.”
The benching hasn’t seemed to affect Mbakwe too much. He’s averaged 33.0 minutes as a reserve in the past two games after averaging 27.5 in the first 16 this season.
“I told coach that anything I need to do to help this team I’m fine with,” Mbakwe said. “If I continue to come off the bench, I don’t think it will change my game at all.”
In his first game after being arrested, he scored a season-low seven points but had 10 rebounds in a 70-67 upset of then-No. 8 Purdue on Jan. 13. Mbakwe followed with 16 points and 12 rebounds in Sunday’s 69-59 win over Iowa after Colton Iverson started in his place again.
“If I’m a starter or coming off the bench, I have to come with energy and bring that toughness to the game,” said Mbakwe, averaging 13.2 points and 10.4 rebounds. “Regardless of if I’m starting or coming off the bench, I think it’s all the same.”
His efforts helped the Gophers (14-4, 3-3) overcome a season-worst 2-of-10 shooting performance from leading scorer Blake Hoffarber (13.8 ppg), who finished with nine points just three days after scoring 26 against Purdue.
Sunday’s win also helped lift Minnesota back into the Top 25 after being left out of the previous two AP polls.
The Gophers would likely stay there if they can avoid a fifth straight loss to the struggling Wolverines (11-8, 1-5) and win for the second time in six games at Crisler Arena.
“We know they’ll be ready for us,” Smith said. “It’ll be a tough place to play.”
Michigan has dropped five straight, but its two home games in that span were close losses against highly ranked teams - 67-60 in overtime to then-No. 3 Kansas and 68-64 to then-No. 2 Ohio State. The Wolverines, though, have lost their past two games by a combined 33 points at Indiana and Northwestern.
They’re 10-3 at home this season with all three defeats coming to Top 25 opponents and have dropped 11 in a row to ranked teams since beating then-No. 15 Connecticut in Ann Arbor last season.
Michigan has averaged 59.0 points on 39.6 percent shooting in its last five games but leading scorer Darius Morris (15.7 ppg) has averaged 18.0 in the last four. He scored 16 in the 74-60 defeat at Northwestern on Tuesday night.
Morris, second in the conference with 7.1 assists per game, totaled 12 assists in last season’s two-game sweep of Minnesota.
Michigan leads the series 77-58.