Minnesota seeking scholarship for Mbakwe

The Minnesota coaching staff believes the Gophers can make a push up the Big Ten standings during the 2012-13 season.

Their run to the NIT championship game gave young standouts Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins a chance to shine on a national stage.

Junior Rodney Williams, one of the most athletic players in the country, averaged 19.2 ppg in five NIT games.

And the team learned recently that Trevor Mbakwe, the Big Ten’s rebounding champ during the 2010-11 season, will be granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after missing the bulk of the 2011-12 campaign with a knee injury. Mbakwe, an NBA prospect, is expected to return.

There’s just one problem.

The Gophers don’t have a scholarship for the talented 6-foot-8 forward, who could be the difference between a Gophers team that finishes in the top-half of the league, and one that ends the year at the bottom of the conference again. With two recruits joining the team next season, the squad has reached its scholarship limit of 13 without Mbakwe.

A source close to the program told ESPN.com Friday that the Gophers petitioned the NCAA for an extra scholarship to remedy their current dilemma, and that the team hopes the NCAA will make a way for Mbakwe to play on scholarship since it had already given him another year of eligibility.

There’s also a chance that someone will leave the program prior to the start of next season. That’s become a common development under Tubby Smith.

Since 2009, five players have transferred out of the program. Even Mbakwe considered a move to Memphis at one point.

During an end-of-year news conference Thursday, covered by Minneapolis Star Tribune beat writer Amelia Rayno, Smith didn’t rule out the possibility that the Gophers could find that additional scholarship for Mbakwe, assuming he returns, through “attrition":

The circumstances of Mbakwe's return remain unclear. With two incoming freshmen -- Wally Ellenson and Charles Buggs -- the Gophers would be at their scholarship limit of 13 without accounting for Mbakwe. Smith said the team sent a letter to the NCAA on Thursday essentially trying to get an extra scholarship for Mbakwe.

The team could hear back from the NCAA by next week. In the meantime, a spot could open up by what Smith termed "attrition." He was planning to meet with players as a group later Thursday, followed soon by individual meetings. Smith said he "wouldn't be surprised" if one or more players were considering transferring -- which would open up a scholarship for Mbakwe and potentially for Arizona State's Trent Lockett, a Hopkins [Minn.] graduate who is expected to transfer.

"You never know what will happen. I could have two or three [players] come to me and say, 'I'm not happy ... I didn't play enough minutes,' " Smith said. "They all think they deserve more. And when I tell them they deserve less, that's where the crossroads is. When we come to the fork in the road -- like Yogi Berra said -- we're going to take it." (From the Star Tribune)

With the Gophers, you just never know.

Next year, the Gophers will have the pieces to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2009-10 season if Mbakwe returns.

Right now, however, that’s a solid “if” considering the scholarship situation.