MADISON -- When senior forward Trevor Mbakwe suffered a torn ACL in late November against Dayton, many people wrote off Minnesota.
Mbakwe was averaging 14 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks while shooting 60.4 percent from the field and 72.7 percent from the line over 28.7 minutes per game. His absence was a big hole that would be difficult for the Gophers to fill.
It was easy to think Minnesota might have little to no chance of being competitive in the Big Ten with their leading scorer lost for the rest of the season. And when they opened conference play with four straight losses -- even after winning their first six games without the senior forward from St. Paul -- it looked like that might just be the case.
Since Jan. 12, though, Minnesota has gone 5-2 to put itself within 3 1/2 games of first place in the Big Ten. Most impressive among the Gophers' five wins was a 77-74 upset victory in Bloomington over then-No. 8 Indiana, which had lost just one game before UM went into Assembly Hall and stole a big win.
But while Minnesota's recent turnaround may surprise some, Bo Ryan and the Badgers are not among them.
"It hasn't surprised any of us that they're doing well," Ryan said Monday in his weekly press conference. "Especially in a league that you just don't know. There are some years that you could have a team that would go 15-3 in the Big Ten and that same team in another year could go .500 the way things are this year."
Minnesota has seen a lot of production out of its bench of late, while the starters have been off just a bit. In a win Sunday at Nebraska, the Gophers got 40 of their 69 points off the bench. Their reserves also accounted for 39 of 77 points in a Jan. 28 overtime win at home against Illinois.
Chip Armelin played a big role in each of those two victories, scoring 15 points against the Huskers and 14 against the Illini, well above his season average of 6.5 per game.
Obviously, bench strength is a positive for Minnesota. But it also points to the struggles of Gophers starters Rodney Williams, Ralph Sampson III and Joe Coleman. In Big Ten play, the three are averaging 11.3, 8.7 and 8.1 points per game, but managed to combine for just 16 points in their win over the Huskers.
Williams and Sampson have left plenty to be desired when it comes to their respective statistical performances in Mbakwe's absence.
Still, with nine players having seen minutes in every Big Ten game and another having played in 10 of 11, the Gophers' strength is clear.
"They've got some good players. They've got some guys that aren't trying to do too much," Ryan said. "Rodney Williams was as good as any player in the country coming out of high school. Ralph Sampson III, those guys have been around.
"Defensively, they can get after you because of how athletic they are. And they've got some depth worked into the lineup now."