- Andy Katz, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Trevor Mbakwe was banned for a season while a court case was pending in which he was charged with assault. Al Nolen had to deal with the scarlet letter of being tagged as academically ineligible in February last season.
Yet if Minnesota was to be taken seriously as a Big Ten title contender this season and a real threat to go deep into March, Mbakwe and Nolen would have to deliver and lead this team out of its plodding past.
So far they have.
And if this past weekend is a precursor to what is to come, the Golden Gophers will be a treat to watch throughout the season.
Minnesota, sans its top creator and scorer, currently suspended wing Devoe Joseph, won the Honda Puerto Rico Tip-Off Sunday night with a 74-70 victory over West Virginia at the Coliseo de Puerto Rico.
Mbakwe, who before this season hadn't played college basketball since an injury-riddled 11-game stint with Marquette as a freshman two years ago, was the tournament Most Valuable Player after finishing with 16 points and seven boards against the Mountaineers. Nolen, a senior, led the Gophers with 17 points (including 11 of 12 free throws) plus four assists, three turnovers and two steals.
"It's surreal to me," said Mbakwe, who played at Miami Dade Community College for a year and sat out all of last season while the assault charge was pending; without admitting guilt, he reached a plea deal that will allow the charge to be stricken from his record once he fulfills some community service. "It's been four years and I finally get a chance to be out here and show what I can do. It shows the balance that we have. It's going to be a long season and I'm looking forward to going to battle with these guys."
Mbakwe was the physical force inside that the Gophers lacked a season ago. He was the edge for Minnesota, something that other teams in this field, notably North Carolina, could use this season.
"He's definitely made a big impact," said Minnesota senior guard Blake Hoffarber. "I've been playing with him and against him for a long time now, and I'm glad to say he's finally playing with us. He's a double-double machine. Anytime you get a guy to rebound like that, it definitely helps your team."
Mbakwe averaged 15.3 points and 8.7 rebounds in the three games here.
The play of big men Colton Iverson (15 points off the bench), Ralph Sampson III (who had been a solid performer prior to his two-point effort Sunday) and Maurice Walker have helped define the Gophers early this season. The role play of Rodney Williams, Maverick Ahanmisi, Austin Hollins and Chip Armelin has also been helpful.
And of course the 3-point shooting of wing Blake Hoffarber (four 3s against WVU) is a must.
But the Gophers don't beat the Mountaineers if not for Nolen's leadership, his defensive toughness and his ability to take over a game. A team like North Carolina or Western Kentucky or countless others would love to have a player like Nolen who can dictate the game.
"Al Nolen really ran the team as well as I've seen him do it," Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said.
"I thought Nolen was outstanding taking care of the ball," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. "Every time we seemingly had a good stand defensively, they just back-screened and he got in the lane and made plays, got to the free throw line and made free throws."
The praise being heaped on Nolen was well-deserved. He has come a long way since last season, when he was singled out for letting his grades slip.
"It was the toughest thing I had to go through in my life," Nolen said. "I was humbled. But it made me the player I am today. It hurt me a lot to see those guys get to the Big Ten tournament final and I couldn't share in the success."
Nolen said a mixture of things led to the surprising February announcement that he was no longer eligible.
"There were family things, and I was keeping them to myself and I let it get into my head," Nolen said. "I fell back in school and I couldn't dig myself out of the hole."
Nolen said he took May classes and 19 summer-school credits. He said some of the classes were retakes of classes he had failed. He was eligible to go to Canada with the team for three days in August.
"Once I was ineligible, I was really down and doubted that I could come back," Nolen said. "But I fought back to take a lot of classes, and with the support of my family and the academic people, I was able to claw back out of the hole."
On Sunday night, the coaching staff filed one by one out of the locker room and slapped Nolen on the back, with assistant coach Vince Taylor saying how much Nolen's return has meant to the team. Having a senior backcourt of Nolen and Hoffarber gives the Gophers more experience than most in the country, let alone the Big Ten. Nolen said he knows he's not respected for his outside shot and that's why he was looking to make plays going to the basket and drawing fouls.
"This win gives us so much confidence," Nolen said. "We're missing Devoe Joseph, but what this shows is that once he gets back the sky's the limit for this team."
Joseph was suspended for a violation of team rules. But the staff says if he takes care of a checklist of responsibilities, he'll be able to rejoin the team shortly.
Once that occurs, it might not be out of the question to consider the Gophers a legit Big Ten title contender. And if you contend in the Big Ten, you're a contender to go deep in March.
"I think this definitely sends a message to a lot of teams that we're for real," Nolen said. "We've got a good team, a great coaching staff and we're motivated to work harder."
The Gophers will certainly be ranked Monday -- and may stay awhile, too.
"This was a great tournament," Smith said. "It's the greatest tournament we've ever been in, win or not."
Smith was obviously giddy about his Gophers. So of course he said all the right things. But he really did hit a home run here, being able to beat North Carolina and West Virginia without Joseph, who found out he's not bigger than the program. Now Smith has all the leverage.
Joseph will be back at some point, possibly soon. And when he does rejoin the team, he surely will fall in line with a group of players who are finding their footing as second-chance players who play with an edge, a purpose and a passion.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Leading the charge during Minnesota's Puerto Rico Tip-Off title run were two players who doubted whether they'd ever be Gophers.