So for those of you who don’t know, I’m an alum of the University of Minnesota. While attending the U of M, I was a season ticket holder in both football and basketball. My first experience ever as a Gopher basketball fan (save for those few tournament games that I watched on TV when the Gophers made their Final Four run) came as a freshman in 2005-06. Even though the Gophers took their lumps early in conference play, I fell in love with the basketball program and the storied Williams Arena during the course of conference play. Despite being an underachieving team at first, the Gophers turned it around and won 3 huge games at home to knock off #13 Indiana, #12 Michigan State, and #18 Iowa, which got me as hooked as can be. I loved being in the Barn packed in with about 13,000 rowdy fans that erupt to a deafening decibel level anytime the “Maroon and Gold” went on a run. The talent level on that team was not very good, but there were some crafty veterans that included Vincent Grier, Moe Hargrow, J’Son Stamper, Adam Boone, and the blue-collar walk-ons: Senior Zach Puchtel and Freshman Jamal Abu-Shamala. Puchtel and Abu-Shamala were inserted into the starting lineups for the CBS nationally televised Sunday afternoon game against Indiana, and Puchtel shut down Marco Killingsworth, and Abu-Shamala seemed to knock down every open 3 that teams gave him.
The following year was a hard one to endure. All of those great Seniors were gone, and the talent in the program was at a painfully low level. The year did not go well early on, and Dan Monson was fired. The way the season was going, I couldn’t blame the administration for the move. Monson clearly struggled to get major conference-caliber talent to come to Minnesota, and it was showing. The remainder of the year was hard to watch under interim Jim Molinari, but I still braved the cold walk from my apartment to watch our team take on the likes of eventual national runner-up Ohio State led by Greg Oden, and then I showed up over an hour early to get good seats for the Gophers taking on the hated Wisconsin Badgers, who were on their way to a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament. We knew the administration was looking for a new direction at head coach, and I was in for the shocker of my life as a Gopher fan.
Somehow, we landed Tubby Smith. A man who had an amazing head coaching resume by anyone’s standards except for the Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA, and North Carolina’s of the world. The first season, Tubby immediately made an impact by turning the team into a 20-win squad with almost the same roster, except for 2 key freshmen in Blake Hoffarber and Al Nolen. I was a bit disappointed that they lost 3 key games to Illinois that year, since the Illini were down, but other than that, I thought Tubby fulfilled reasonable expectations in his first year. Last year, he was able to build on that, and the team progressed and made the tournament despite losing 3 seniors who all started the year before, but was helped by Tubby’s first recruiting class, which was pretty good by Minnesota standards. Meanwhile, Tubby put together a Top Ten recruiting class for the next year, so the excitement and expectations skyrocketed for this season.
So now we’re in that hyped up season that had the Gopher’s ranked in the preseason coaches’ poll. We started strong in our first test with a win over #10 Butler on a neutral court, but immediately the Gophers squandered the weekend by losing to unranked Portland and Texas A&M. In their next game they lost at Miami, and already this team was failing to live up to the hype. They closed out the non-conference schedule with a 6 game win streak, but then came the Big Ten schedule. The season was still going to be fine if the Gophers could win all of the games they were supposed to, and steal just 1 or 2 big games that they weren’t supposed to. When we beat Penn State and Iowa, no one was surprised. Nor were we surprised when we lost to the undefeated Boilermakers. But things got a bit troubling when the Gophers lost at Indiana, and then let a game slip through their fingers at home against Michigan State. Now with the loss at home to Michigan, the Gophers are out of chances to get a signature win, because all of their biggest remaining games are at home. Nothing short of going undefeated the rest of the way in conference play, or winning the Big Ten Tournament could get us an NCAA berth.
Early on in Tubby’s time here at Minnesota, he instituted a style of play that uses a lot of depth to keep fresh legs on the court to run his full court press that forced a lot of turnovers, which led to easy baskets. That was understandable in the first two years when Tubby was working with predominantly inherited players, but now in the third year, there’s no excuse for this lack of composed half court offensive play. We still run an ineffective offense that relies on Hoffarber hitting a three, or Westbrook forcing something up at the end of the shot clock. Rarely we will get decent ball movement and find a cutter for a layup, but these are far and few between, and especially rare in crunch time when we desperately need a bucket. The Gophers simply can’t win close games, and that comes down to coaching. Plain and simple. Last night’s loss to Michigan in the Barn was embarrassing. Michigan passed the ball around in the half court until they got a layup almost every time down the court, and our press failed to yield turnovers, but rather easy layups for DeShawn Sims. Tubby needs to realize the press should be used against weaker opponents, or sparingly against Big Ten foes, like when it brought us back against Wisconsin in Madison last season. Good teams can too easily turn the press into layups and we struggle too much on offense to spot teams points like that.
Now, let me be clear that I’m not calling for Tubby’s resignation. I want him to be our coach for a long time, and perhaps this season will just have to be a step back before we move forward. In some ways, Tubby is a victim of his own immediate success. The fan base has developed very high expectations in short amount of time. That being said, there is no excuse in losing to a non top ten team at home, especially in a must win game when you already blew a game you should have won to #5 Michigan State at home. Maybe if we were a better road team I wouldn’t complain so much, but we’re horrendous on the road.
Now the other point is that Al Nolen is academically ineligible, Trevor Mbakwe is not being allowed to play by our administration despite the fact that the charges against him were made with no hard evidence (somehow some DA is believing a woman who ID’d Mbakwe by looking at a picture of him on the Internet, while Mbakwe has 4 eyewitness accounts of his whereabouts when said woman claims to have been sexually assaulted. Her word against 4, no other evidence to speak of), and Royce White turned out to be a far worse head case than I would have ever guessed. All of these things were out of Tubby’s control. I realize that. He had to recruit Trevor and especially Royce. White was the best talent to come out of this state since Kris Humphries, so Tubby would have been killed by everyone for not going after him. But none of this is excuse enough for the team’s lack of hustle and composure down the stretch in big games. That is coaching, and Tubby needs to take heat for that. I think he needs to bring in some sort of offensive guru assistant coach to help his staff come up with new offensive sets. But who knows? Perhaps when Tubby has had a full four years of his recruits in his program he’ll have the talent and the kind of players he likes for his system, and it will work. I just hate to see Damian Johnson, my favorite Gopher in my short time as a Gopher fan, have his career end with such a disappointing season. We will miss him dearly next year, unless Rodney Williams assumes that role, or Royce White wakes up and realizes he’s blowing it big time.
One more quick note on the NCAA tournament. Apparently a lot of coaches want the tournament to expand to 96 teams, and the mere mention of this makes me angry. Can you imagine this mediocre Gophers squad making the NCAA tournament? Well they would if the field was 96, and that’s just ridiculous. It would eliminate the achievement that comes with making the tournament. I adore the NCAA tournament, and it would be such a tragedy to see it changed.
That’s all for now. Go Gophers!