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Trevor Mbakwe, Branden Dawson among injured stars making return


For an athlete, there's nothing worse than suffering an injury serious enough that it is season-ending. No competitor wants to sit idly by and watch his teammates play without being able to do anything more than the frat boys sitting in the front row. What's more difficult, however, is the process of coming back from the injury: getting back into shape, shaking off the rust of going months without playing, teaching a surgically repaired knee how to function, learning to trust that a certain move isn't going to result in a broken foot again.

Here is a list of the notable players coming off of serious injuries this season:

Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota: Mbakwe has not had an easy collegiate career. He transferred out of Marquette after one year and spent a year at a JuCo in Miami where he was accused of assaulting a woman. He was forced to sit out at Minnesota while his legal issues played out, but finally got in the Gopher lineup in 2010-11. After averaging a double-double as a junior, Mbakwe came back as the centerpiece of a Minnesota team expected to be in and around the top 25. But after averaging 14.8 points and 10.0 boards while leading the Gophers to a 6-0 start on the season, he blew out the ACL in his right knee in the title game of the Old Spice Classic against Dayton.

Mbakwe did catch a break, however: The NCAA granted him a sixth-year of eligibility, which is part of the reason that the Gophers are a trendy sleeper pick in the Big Ten. They also return five of their top six scorers from a team that eventually won 23 games and made it to the final of NIT. With a healthy Mbakwe back to anchor a lineup that also includes guards Julian Welch, Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins as well as uber-athletic forward Rodney Williams, Tubby Smith has a team capable of finishing in the top five of a strong Big Ten.

Branden Dawson, Michigan State: Dawson was in the midst of a solid freshman campaign when he tore the ACL of his left knee in the first half of the final regular season game against Ohio State. The timing of Dawson's injury makes things tough for two reasons: 1) he's made a speedy recovery and is still only "three-quarters" of the way back to playing full contact despite being just a couple of weeks from the start of practice, and 2) his summer was spent recovering instead of improving his game. That said, Dawson's size, athleticism and aggressiveness at the small forward spot makes him an ideal fit for the style of play that Tom Izzo employs. He'll be a valuable piece for the Spartans when he's back to 100 percent.

Jio Fontan, Dewayne Dedmon and Aaron Fuller, USC: The Trojans had some of the worst luck when it came to injuries last season. Guard Jio Fontan tore his ACL during a trip to Brazil last summer. He was the team's second-leading scorer in 2010-11 and was expected to carry the program alongside Maurice Jones last season. Forward Aaron Fuller was the second-leading scorer for the Trojans this past year before seeing his season end in January due to a shoulder injury. Center Dewayne Dedmon, who many believe is talented enough to one day get drafted into the NBA, had finally found a rhythm after being banged up early in the year -- he was averaging 9.6 points and 5.9 boards through the first seven Pac-12 games -- before he suffered a torn left MCL and tibial bone bruise in late January. With those three returning to full strength this season, and a roster that has received a serious infusion of talent thanks to head coach Kevin O'Neill's ability to bring in transfers, USC looks poised to make a run at an NCAA tournament berth. Pretty impressive for a team that won just six games -- and just one Pac-12 game -- last season.

Laurence Bowers, Missouri: I just wrote a fairly in-depth feature on Bowers and his return to the Tiger lineup, so I'll keep things fairly brief here. Heading into the 2011-2012 season, many observers believed that Bowers was actually the best player on the Missouri team. And, believe it or not, he's actually a better fit for this year's team than he would have been on last year's roster. He plays the four but has the ball skills to play on the perimeter in a spread-out offensive attack while remaining a terrific play-maker defensively for a team that is going to be much tougher on that end of the floor. Given that there isn't anyone else on the roster with his skill-set, it's difficult to understate Bowers' importance to this year's group.

Kevin Parrom, Arizona: The easiest player to root for in the country this season is Parrom, who will be this year's Thomas Robinson. While his mother was battling cancer back in his native New York, Parrom's grandmother passed away over the summer. His mother finally lost her battle with the disease last October, about three weeks after Parrom was the victim of an attempted murder while he was back home, getting shot in the leg and the hand. After struggling through the early part of the season, Parrom finally hit his stride last January, and promptly broke his foot. Word out of Tucson is that Parrom is now healthy, both mentally and physically, which is good news for the Wildcats. He's a play-maker that can take some pressure off of Mark Lyons this season.

Maurice Creek, Indiana: If Parrom is this year's Thomas Robinson, than Creek is this year's Robbie Hummel. As a freshman in 2009-10, Creek averaged 17.6 points through his first 11 games, including a 31 point outburst against Kentucky. But he suffered a gruesome ruptured patella tendon in his left knee, having to get taken off the court in a stretcher. As a sophomore, Creek was clearly less than 100 percent, averaging just 8.4 points before rupturing the patella tendon in his other knee. And before last season even began, Creek tore his Achilles'. That's three major injuries and major surgeries in three years. It's unclear whether Creek will even be healthy enough to be a contributor on the nation's No. 1 team. Regardless, simply getting back out on the court will be a big deal.

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Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald, North Carolina: Perhaps the most disappointing part of the 2011-2012 season is that we never got that rematch of the fantastic Kentucky-North Carolina game from December. Why? Well, because the Tar Heels simply couldn't avoid getting injured. We all remember the wrist injuries suffered by Kendall Marshall and John Henson, but perhaps more important were the torn ACLs suffered by Strickland and McDonald. McDonald never even suited up last season, blowing out his knee over the summer, while Strickland went down in a January game against Virginia Tech. Without a guard to use at the point, Roy Williams was forced to ride the coattails of freshman guard Stillman White. With Marshall currently with the Phoenix Suns, Strickland and McDonald become Williams' safety net should anything happen to Marcus Paige.

Marshawn Powell, Arkansas: Back in 2009-10, Powell appeared to be one of the most promising freshman in the country, as he averaged 14.9 points and 6.7 boards for the Razorbacks. But he broke his foot that summer and never returned to full strength as a sophomore, which is why it was so promising to see him score 39 points in his first two games last season. But Powell ended up tearing the ACL in his right knee in a practice, ending his season before it truly had a chance to begin. Well, Powell is now healthy, and with BJ Young returning for his sophomore season and a solid supporting cast of young talent, Mike Anderson should have a team that makes some noise in the SEC.

Pe'Shon Howard, Maryland: After a solid freshman campaign, Howard was expected to team with Terrell Stoglin in Mark Turgeon's back court. But the sophomore broke his foot prior to the season and missed the first nine games of the year. After finally getting onto the floor, Howard tore the ACL in his right knee in a practice in February. Howard may end up being the most important player for the Terrapins this season. With Sam Cassell Jr. failing to make it through the NCAA's clearinghouse, Howard is the only point guard on the Terps roster. Maryland is still probably a year away, but if things break the right way, the Terps could end up being an NCAA tournament team this season.

Scootie Randall, Temple: Randall's been banged up for quite a while. He injured a foot against Richmond in a late February game during the 2010-11 season, playing just seven minutes the rest of the season. After battling back from that injury, Randall underwent offseason knee surgery and was never quite able to get back to 100 percent, missing the entire 2011-12 season. He was averaging 10.8 points before he got hurt against Richmond, and that's a scoring pop that Temple is desperately going to need: Ramone Moore graduated and Khalif Wyatt was popped in a prostitution sting in Atlantic City over the summer.

Derek Needham, Fairfield: The Stags had quite a disappointing season in 2011-12. Coming into the year with all kinds of expectations, Fairfield played below its ability for much of the regular season before eventually losing Needham, the team's star point guard, to a broken foot in late February. With Rakim Sanders graduating, more pressure will fall on the senior point guard to carry this team.

Will Yeguete, Florida: Yeguete was one of the most important pieces in Florida's attack last season because of his versatility. He's a 6-foot-7 athletic forward that defends, rebounds and played the point of Florida's press. The Gators still managed to make it to within a game of the Final Four after he broke his foot back in February, and while it is difficult to argue against the success they had, it does make you wonder: Would things have been different for Billy Donovan's team had Yeguete been in uniform?

Alex Kirk, New Mexico: Kirk was a top recruit coming out of high school, standing just a shade under seven-feet with range out to the three-point line. As a freshman in 2010-11, he managed to post 4.7 points and 3.7 boards in just under 15 minutes per game. But a slipped disk led to a pinched nerve and, eventually, surgery that summer, which kept Kirk out for all of the 2011-12 season. With AJ Hardeman and Drew Gordon graduating, Kirk will be counted on by Steve Alford for major minutes up front this season.

Allan Chaney, High Point: Chaney hasn't played basketball since the 2008-09 season at Florida. He left the Gators to transfer to Virginia Tech after that season, but in April 2010, he collapsed during a workout and it was determined that he had a severe case of viral myocarditis. He was never cleared by the Hokies, but after two years of undergoing tests, Chaney was finally medically cleared to play for High Point this season.

Eric Katenda, Notre Dame: When it comes to gruesome freak injuries, there are few that have reached the level of Katenda's: He was accidentally poked in his left eye last summer, which severed his optic nerve and rendered him completely blind in one eye. It delayed his enrollment at Notre Dame by a semester, but he's now back out on the court and trying to work his way into Mike Brey's rotation. Katenda won't be eligible until the end of the first semester, but Brey may end up redshirting him for the entire season.

Other notable names coming off of injuries: Josh Benson (Dayton), Sampson Carter and Cady Lalanne (UMass), Jon Horford (Michigan), Mike Marra (Louisville), Paul McCoy (St. Mary's), Nick Minnerath (Detroit), Kevin Noreen (West Virginia), JP Olukemi (Oklahoma State), Chris Otule (Marquette), Kourtney Roberson (Texas A&M), Terrance Shannon (Florida State), JT Thompson (Charlotte), Marc Trasolini (Santa Clara)