As soon as Mbakwe left the floor, the Flyers started to exploit the void inside and that was a major factor in the 16-point Dayton win. The Golden Gophers, however, recovered quickly following the Dayton game and beat Virginia Tech and USC in their next two outings.
The goal for Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith was to have his team realigned and adjusted to the loss of Mbakwe before the start of the Big Ten season on Dec. 27 at Illinois. It meant changes in the lineup, but also a more prominent role for 6-11 senior F Ralph Sampson III.
"He seems to be moving better. His practices have been better and I think his stamina and his wind need to get better," Smith said about Sampson, who missed some time following the Mbakwe departure due to a minor ankle injury. "I thought we've got a good balance of scoring and getting guys prepared for games."
Sampson said he understands how the loss of Mbakwe impacts the role he will have to play for the Gophers to stay in the hunt in the Big Ten race.
"I recognize now that the team is lacking in experience and leadership," Sampson said, "but I think the team has taken it upon themselves to step up individually and be accountable for each other. We know who we are."
--The Gophers became the first Division I team in the country to reach 10 wins when they easily dispatched Saint Peter's 69-47 in a recent home outing.
--There is no over-selling the late November loss of senior F Trevor Mbakwe with an ACL tear in his right knee. Mbakwe snagged 327 rebounds last season, averaging 10.5 rebounds and 13.9 points per game. He was the first Gopher since Kris Humphries in the 2003-04 season to average a double-double.
--Minnesota can be accused of getting fat and happy in the pre-Big Ten portion of the schedule and doing so against relatively little competition. Of the 13 opponents Minnesota will have faced before entering Big Ten play, only Dayton, USC and Virginia Tech offered high-profile opposition, and the USC and Virginia Tech games came on Minnesota's home floor.
PLAYER TO WATCH: F Ralph Sampson III -- The loss of senior F Trevor Mbakwe to a season-ending knee injury will put the magnifying glass on Sampson, who gained a lot of freedom to operate when Mbakwe was on the floor. Sampson himself was slowed for a couple of games by an ankle injury, but with the Big Ten schedule looming right around the corner, he was being eased back into the lineup. "It means a lot to have our team captain back," G Julian Welch said. "He is a really good player and we have been looking forward to having him back. Hopefully he will be 100 percent before Big Ten."
KEY CONFERENCE GAME: Jan. 4 vs. Iowa -- After opening Big Ten play with two straight road games against Illinois and Michigan, the Golden Gophers return home for what will be a must-win, regardless of how the early road swing goes. Minnesota's only chance to contend in the conference title picture will require the Gophers to be perfect at home, starting with this date with the Hawkeyes.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "That sounds good, considering coming into this season there weren't a lot of people that believed in us, especially after Trevor went down. We know what we got here and we knew what we could do, so it feels good." -- Minnesota junior F Rodney Williams on the Gophers being the first Division I team to reach 10 wins, despite the loss of F Trevor Mbakwe.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2010-11 CONFERENCE RECORD: 6-12, ninth place.
LINEUP BREAKDOWN: G Austin Hollins gives the Gophers a spark with his defensive play and points off steals, while F Rodney Williams has picked up his scoring and rebounding since the season-ending injury to senior F Trevor Mbakwe. F Ralph Sampson III appears sound after missing some time with an ankle injury as Sampson had his best game of the season in a recent win over Saint Peter's with 15 points, eight rebounds, and four blocked shots.
G Julian Welch has worked out well as a reliable set-up man and a consistent contributor on the offensive side, averaging around 10 ppg. and leading the team in 3-poing accuracy, while G Andre Hollins, a freshman and the 2011 Mr. Basketball in the state of Tennessee, averages about seven ppg. This lineup is still fluid as the team adjusts to the loss of Mbakwe, with an emphasis on settling on a playing rotation by the start of conference play.
--G Andre Hollins sat out the Saint Peter's game after tweaking his ankle in a previous outing against Appalachian State. He is not expected to miss more than one or two games.
--F Trevor Mbakwe, who led the Big Ten in rebounding last season, tore the ACL in his right knee in late November and is lost for the season.
--F Ralph Sampson III missed a couple of games in the non-conference schedule due to an ankle injury but was back in the lineup by the second week of December.