Tubby Smith Needs To Catch A BreakPosted by Deepak Jayanti on February 24th, 2012
Winters in Minnesota are all about highs and lows not just temperature wise, but also with their basketball team. The Golden Gophers had their lows during the Dan Monson era from 2000 to 2007 because they only made it to one NCAA tournament. It wasn’t all Monson’s fault as he was trying to rebuild a program dealing with probation assessed due to the actions of Clem Haskins, the prior coach. But when Tubby Smith was brought in from Kentucky to replace Monson, the fans had certain expectations. Smith did not disappoint as he led the Gophers to the Big Dance three out of the first four seasons in Minneapolis. The fan base could feel the momentum shift at the turn of the decade after some tough winters. Smith recruited a top 25 class and the athleticism of the players was very obvious on the court. But similar to the temperatures, the program dropped again after those high points over the last couple seasons. Arguments could be made that Tubby Smith’s coaching has not been up to par but several events that led to the Gopher letdown were out of his control– on and off the court. Let’s examine a couple of those factors and understand how Smith dealt with them.
The stage was set for potential disappointment in 2010 when 6’8″ forward Royce White transferred to Iowa State. White joined other transfers such as Michigan State’s Chris Allen to play for Fred Hoiberg and the Cyclones. White is having a fantastic season – 12.9 PPG, 9.1 RPG, and 5.0 APG. In addition to White, the list of transfers includes Devoe Joseph to Oregon and Colton Iverson to Colorado State. Joseph has Oregon sitting on the bubble for an NCAA tournament bid in a weak Pac-12 conference but his services would have certainly helped Tubby Smith’s team. He is averaging 16.3 PPG and Smith caught a fair amount of heat in 2011 when Joseph chose to leave Minnesota. Royce White’s case was a little different because of several off the court issues but nonetheless, Smith was counting on him to have a good career in Minneapolis and it fell short. Smith’s recruiting classes were very good and the performance of his ex-players shows that he knew what he was doing but for several other reasons, he couldn’t hold the team together. Is he to blame for all of the transfers? Not necessarily. Players don’t always pan out the way you expect them to, but the best you can do is bring them into the program and try to keep them away from trouble and focused on basketball.
Despite all the transfers, Smith did an excellent job keeping the rest of the locker room together and creating a sense of accountability. Coaches lose their jobs not just because of transfers but also due to the instability within the program following their exit. Even though Joseph and Iverson followed White’s direction out of the door, those moves did not impact the 2011 season immediately. The Gophers won 10 games in their non-conference season and were ready for a good Big Ten campaign. Even if the fans blame Smith for the transfers, he couldn’t do much about the injuries. Al Nolen got hurt midway through the Big Ten conference season which led to a losing skid over the last 11 games and the Gophers finished with only 17 wins for the year. Nolen showed great leadership on the court and it was sorely missed during key stretches of games last season. Regardless, Smith continued to lead his team as other players stepped up. Trevor Mbakwe improved his game and as a result was ready to lead them in the 2012 season. Once again, they entered the year at a high point because they started with 10 wins before the B1G season. What goes up has to come down and it did when Mbakwe’s season was cut short with yet another injury. It doesn’t help a team when their leading scorer is out for the season and the coach needs to adjust the offense right before beginning conference play. Smith doesn’t deserve the blame especially if the backups step up to the plate every year.
After Mbakwe went down, most experts chalked Minnesota to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten standings. But Rodney Williams, a 6’7″ junior was held accountable to lead and he delivered. Another junior, Julian Welch, has been averaging 10.5 PPG to supplement Williams’ 11.0 PPG to pick up the void left behind after Mbakwe’s injury. Instead of feeding the post, Smith had to adjust the offense to utilize Williams’ slashing abilities. The Gophers played their hearts out during the first four games of the B1G season but they fell short in all of them by a close margin – a loss to Illinois in double overtime on the road and losing to Michigan and Iowa by a combined total of seven points. The learning curve was too steep for the younger players who were used to playing second fiddle in the offense. It was obvious during those losses that they missed a closer. Williams and Welch were fast learners, but couldn’t close the gap quickly to win tough games. The same trend continued over the last four games, specifically the one against Michigan State on Wednesday night. Minnesota was up 58-52 in the last couple minutes during a must-win game but they turned the ball over twice within the last-minute to blow the lead. There was a lack of leadership on the floor because their guards Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman are only freshmen after all. Regardless, they gave Tom Izzo’s crew everything they could handle but just couldn’t close the deal. The Gopher fan base went through another high during the mid-season but had to fall down as their bubble might have popped after the loss on Wednesday night.
Tubby Smith has done a great job of picking up his players after key injuries and transfers but at some point it catches up. And that’s exactly what happened over the last couple seasons. But there is plenty of hope for next season because the younger wingmen will come back more mature and give the Big Ten everything they can handle. The attitude of the fans however will be of some cautious optimism after what they have been through the last couple winters.