staff, March 23, 2012

(AP) The NCAA has granted injured Minnesota forward Trevor Mbakwe a sixth season of eligibility. Now it's up to Mbakwe to decide if he wants to take it.

The Golden Gophers announced the NCAA's decision Friday, but the 6-foot-8 Mbakwe has not said if he will return next season after rehabbing a torn ligament in his right knee.

"I am certainly excited for the opportunity that the NCAA has given me in a sixth year of eligibility," Mbakwe said in a statement issued by the school. "I want to thank my family and all of Gopher Nation for all of the support. It has been a difficult season, but I am confident that I will be able to return to the type of player I was before the injury."

Now it's just a matter of where that return will occur.

Mbakwe was leading the Gophers with 14.0 points and 9.1 rebounds per game when he crumpled to the court against Dayton on Nov. 27. He had surgery in December.

"The NCAA made the right decision," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. "Trevor has done everything we have asked of him for three years now, and he deserves the right to compete for a sixth season."

Mbakwe was a constant presence on the Gophers bench this season, encouraging the team and offering support, but his teammates looked lost at times without their physical and emotional leader. They went 12-12 the rest of the regular season to finish 18-13 and won one game in the Big Ten tournament, which was not enough to get them into the NCAA tournament.

The Gophers have gone on a run in the NIT, beating La Salle, Miami and Middle Tennessee State to reach the semifinals, which will be Tuesday against Washington in New York.

If Mbakwe chooses to stay at Minnesota, he'll turn 24 next season, which is considered old when it comes to NBA prospects in this era of one-and-done college players. He's the same age as Timberwolves star Kevin Love, who is in his fourth NBA season.

But if he chooses to declare for the NBA draft in June, Mbakwe will only be about seven months removed from surgery and unlikely to show scouts and talent evaluators that he is ready to return to his physical, athletic style of play in time for next season. The injury questions are sure to damage his draft stock.

Mbakwe also has a young son, so there are financial obligations to consider.

"I have a family to take care of," he said in January. "It's not easy being a college student with all the finances and stuff."

Mbakwe's college career started at Marquette in 2007. He sat out the 2008-09 season because of transfer rules, then missed the 2009-10 season when Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi decided he should not play while an assault case was playing out in the court system.

He maintained his innocence, entered a pretrial program and made his Gophers debut in 2010-11, when he led the Big Ten in rebounding with 10.5 per game.

The Gophers had high hopes for this season, primarily because Mbakwe was back to roam the paint and dominate the glass. But he was injured in the seventh game of the season, and the Gophers went 6-12 in the Big Ten without him.

If Mbakwe returns to school, the Gophers' prospects for next season would increase dramatically. Senior center Ralph Sampson III is the only other player the team expects to lose this year.!/GophersNow/status/183235579385872384