Was Trevor Mbakwe Mishandled by Minnesota Golden Gophers' AD Joel Maturi?

Kevin LindseyAnalyst IJune 29, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS - MARCH 11:  Cheerleaders of the Minnesota Golden Gophers perform during the game against the Penn State Nittany Lion in the first round of the Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament at Conseco Fieldhouse on March 11, 2010 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Trevor Mbakwe has been suspended from the Minnesota Gophers basketball team for nearly a year. 

During the past school year, Mbakwe has done what Athletic Director Joel Maturi wants his student athletes to do at Minnesota.  Mbakwe has maintained his grades, attended class, and kept a very low profile.

Well, two out of three isn’t bad, right?

Mbakwe has kept as low of a profile as possible for someone who is awaiting trial for felony assault.

The felony assault charge against Mbakwe arose from an incident in April of 2009 when Mbakwe was enrolled at Miami Dade Junior College. 

The victim of the assault alleges that Mbakwe punched her twice during an attempt to sexually assault her.  The victim selected him from a police lineup.

Mbakwe alleges that he is a victim of mistaken identity and has identified four individuals who can provide him with an alibi for the time period in which the assault occurred.

When Mbakwe transferred to Minnesota in 2009, the expectation was that he would have his day in court in the fall, be acquitted, and be ready to play at the start of the 2009-2010 basketball season.

There appears to have been an internal discussion between Coach Tubby Smith and Maturi over the issue of whether or not Mbakwe would be allowed to play during last season before the resolution of his criminal court case.  At the outset, some believed that Mbakwe would be allowed to play for the Gophers at some point during the season.

However, on November 2, 2009 Maturi issued a statement stating that while Mbakwe would be allowed to practice he would not be allowed to play with the team until his court case was resolved. 

Mbakwe was scheduled to go to trial on December 14, 2009 but the case was postponed.  As a result Mbakwe lost any chance of playing for the Gophers this past season.

Currently, Mbakwe’s court case is scheduled to go to trial on July 26. 

But even if Mbakwe is acquitted, he may never play for Minnesota.

In the spring of this year Mbakwe asked Minnesota to release him from his scholarship.  Mbakwe has applied for a hardship waiver from the NCAA which, if Minnesota is amenable, would allow Mbakwe to play next season.

One of the key facts that the NCAA is going to rely on when deciding whether to give Mbakwe a waiver is that other NCAA membership institutions would have allowed him to play last season.

Which raises the question: did Maturi make the right decision in suspending Mbakwe pending final resolution of the criminal charges against him?

Fans who care only about wins and losses know the answer to that question.

Mbakwe, nicknamed “The Beast,” is 6'8' and an explosive 240-pound former Mr. Minnesota Basketball Player of the Year.   Watching Mbakwe play in the Summer Pro-Am League in the Twin Cities, it is clear that he would have been a difference-maker in the post for the Gophers last year.  Especially with his rim-rattling dunks.

The Gophers could have made it to the Final Four with Mbakwe in the starting lineup last season, as they won 21 games last year without him.

Minnesota Gophers fans could be watching a team that could contend for the Big Ten Championship if Mbakwe plays next year.

Between Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III, the Gophers have one of the best center and power forward combinations in the conference.  Blake Hoffarber, the best three point shooter in the Big Ten, and Devoe Joseph form a solid guard tandem.

Add Mbakwe and the Gophers have one of the best starting lineups in the Big Ten. 

Did Maturi treat Mbakwe fairly by suspending him for the entire season?

Fans who look at the suspension of Mbakwe only from the viewpoint of how it impacted Mbakwe’s basketball future and his psyche are wondering whether Maturi made the right decision.

Mbakwe is a player who has the potential to play professional basketball.  The window of opportunity for a professional athlete is open for a very short period of time. 

The loss of last season for Mbakwe has negatively impacted his ability to secure a professional contract and narrowed the length of his potential career.

Additionally, being on the sidelines for the entire year had to take an emotional and mental toll on him.   Mbakwe acknowledged the uncertainty about his future with Minnesota has been a heavy burden.

The emotional strain on Mbakwe appears to have taken such a toll on him that he is ready to close this chapter of his life in Minnesota and move on.

"It's been tough; it's been a long year.  I'm ready for this to be over with and finally move on with my life and play basketball again. It was tough having to watch my teammates play the season from the bench. It will be a big burden off my back when the trial is over with."

Maturi could have lifted Mbakwe’s suspension in January and allowed to him to play the balance of the basketball season once Mbakwe’s December 14 trial date was postponed. The January solution would not have been perfect for Mbakwe; however he would have felt like he was truly part of the team.

Maturi would have received some negative publicity for his decision, but he could have answered some of his critics by issuing a statement saying that Mbakwe, like all citizens in our country, should be presumed to be innocent until proven otherwise.

The decision to lift Mbakwe’s suspension would also have been defensible in the court of public opinion, given that the delay of Mbakwe’s trial was due primarily to witnesses being unavailable to testify.

Mbakwe’s future with the Gophers is now uncertain, and it has little to do with his court date in July.

The question now being asked around Williams Arena is whether Mbakwe will return to the Gophers or whether he will transfer to Memphis, Kentucky, or Georgia Tech.

When Mbakwe was asked about returning to the Gophers, he said, "Right now I'm a Gopher, but I'm not 100 percent if I'm going to come back."  

If Mbakwe transfers, many will wonder if Maturi made the right decision to suspend Mbakwe.