|And you have just been posterized Ralph.|
Earlier this week I was challenged to write a story about the state of the Minnesota Gopher men's basketball program. The challenger was a Gopher fanatic, riding high as the Gophers had seemed to be hitting their stride in the Big Ten season after an overtime win over Illinois, which capped a streak of 4 wins out of 5 with the only loss coming at Michigan State, which is more than excusable. I accepted the challenge but had to sit down and watch the Iowa game last night prior to doing the write up as I had hardly seen the Gophers play this year due to my complete lack of interest in a team that had lost me as a fan when Duke stole my love in 1992. I couldn't even make the time though last night to watch the entire game, both channels of my DVR were in use with the Timberwolves game and American Idol for Mrs. Duke (if this blogging thing was bringing in more cash, I'd get a second DVR so that Mrs. Duke and I could each have one to use...but alas the STOB cash flow hasn't yet made that possible). All was not lost though, I was able to catch the final ten minutes of the game, in which the Gophers showed they are just what I thought they were and what they have been for the entire run of the Tubby Smith era.
I must first tell you I have zero allegiances to the Gophers. Even as a resident of the great state of Minnesota, I have never really caught the Gopher bug. As previously stated in this story (and many times previously on STOB) I fell in love with Duke basketball in 1992 (I was 7) when Laettner hit his famous shot against Kentucky. Now that isn't to say I didn't jump on the Clem Haskins Final Four run with Bobby Jackson, that has since been wiped from the history books for the academic cheating scandal, but the bandwagon fandom or interest never approached my obsession of Duke basketball.
In college, Ken and I began our "rivalry" of Duke and Minnesota. We would talk trash about the other's team all college basketball season, more so on our team's expectations than a head to head comparison, since we all know Duke is far superior. With that friendly back n' forth I had actually begun enjoying the Gopher lack of success, as it would allow me ammo to rip Ken with. After the debacle of last year though, Ken has lost his passion for our fight as the Gophers have been so disappointing he has nothing to say against Duke at this point. So now I am hoping the Gophers get back to respectability so our back n' forth can be reignited.
With all of that said, I am approaching the current state of the Gophers with pretty much a complete unbiased viewpoint. I don't dislike anyone on the team, have both rooted for and against the Gophers over time and at this point don't really care. Now, admittedly I haven't watched a ton of Gopher basketball this year, but I have seen enough to form an opinion and know Tubby Smith well enough I think to judge how he is doing. So now here is my take on the current state of the Minnesota Gopher (16-7, 4-6 in the Big Ten) men's basketball program.
First let's start with the guy that has put this roster together in Tubby Smith. To me, nobody has been held up as an elite coach more because of one championship, that wasn't won with his recruits or players but with Rick Pitino's, than Tubby Smith has. Tubby is an alright coach, probably above average. Yet, it is due to that one title that Tubby is held in the high regard he is still today. Seven of the players on his 1998 title winning Kentucky squad had played under Pitino in the 1997 National Title game loss, and five of them played for Pitino on the 1996 National Title winning team. Though with all of that, none of the players on the 1998 team were 1st team All Americans or future NBA Lottery picks which is a rarity in the modern era and a good argument for Smith's coaching acumen. Though, from that season on with Kentucky, possibly college basketball's most premier program in which most coaches have had nothing but great success in recruiting and with their product on the court, Tubby's teams fell into relative mediocrity often losing 10+ games a season and earning Tubby the not so admirable moniker of "10 loss Tubby". After being a disappointment to the Kentucky faithful for 10 years, Tubby resigned and took the open Gopher position.
That brings us to the past four and a half seasons with Tubby at Minnesota's helm. Now for Gopher fans looking at the previous regime and comparing it to Tubby's, you maybe thrilled. To me though, that excitement for what Tubby turned the Gophers into was all well and good when he got them to the NCAA Tournament in only his second season. It is the fact that from that point on, Minnesota haven't improved. Tubby isn't getting better recruits than he did then, he isn't getting better final records for the team, he isn't getting more consistent play and he isn't getting better at coaching up players while in a Gopher uniform and making them better than when they came to the program.
What we have seen that past 4 years and continue to see this year, is what a Tubby Smith coached team is. Ugly offensively, above average defensively and with a weak non-conference schedule (as they have had every year he has been here) a near to slightly above 20 win team with 10 or more losses. Oh sure, he'll get you some big wins (see Louisville, North Carolina and this year's on the road win against Indiana) but then he'll get you the horrible losses (see Iowa this year X2, Northwestern losses, etc) that pretty much even out the resume. This creates a very average Big Ten team that the tournament committee isn't thrilled to accept into the NCAA Tournament each year.
A Gopher fan could argue that Tubby has never truly had his full team here due to all the transfers and injuries, and while the injuries are completely out of his control, the transfers eventually need to blamed on him. He is the program and when there has been a mass exodus the way there has been at the U during his regime he has to be involved.
To me the coach of the Gophers, Tubby Smith, is an average coach living off of one only partially earned National Title and will never get the Gophers much further in their season's than he already has. There will be high points, say a Sweet 16 run when the right talent and match ups are allowed, but then there will be more tournament bubbles burst and 1st round exits to make those runs very forgettable.
Now let me turn my attention to the current roster.
I am about as excited about this roster as Ralph Sampson is excited about playing basketball. If you don't know Ralph, he makes Darko Milicic look like a middle school girl who just got to touch the hem of Justin Beiber's garment in terms of excitement for the game of basketball. If you don't know Darko...he ain't pumped up...sorry I am not Dennis Miller, I can't keep pumping out these great comedic references. My point is this roster is full of average players, many of which haven't lived up to their expectations (see Ralph Sampson, Rodney Williams, Andre Hollins) or haven't been consistent (Julian Welch, Maverick Ahanmisi, Joe Coleman, Austin Hollins, Elliot Eliason) or have been pretty much worthless (the rest) and finally have been hurt (Trever Mbakwe, Maurice Walker). I just don't see a lot of hope in this roster. Joe Coleman could turn into a nice player, but in no means will he be a top flight Big Ten player that can lead you to a B1G conference title. So you look to recruiting and see if Tubby has a savior coming in next year. The incoming class boasts...two 3 star recruits...not exactly going to blow the doors off of Michigan State or Indiana.
So we are left to wonder where U of M fans go from here with this team? Where the Gophers are headed are where they have been; somewhere in the middle of the Big 10. 7 to 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament in the year's they actually make it with a likely first round bounce. Around 20 wins each year, built mainly off of a very weak non-conference schedule and beating up on the less fortunate Big Ten teams in conference play. At or above 10 losses, with expected losses to the Michigan State's of the world and then the horrible losses to the Penn State's, Iowa's and Northwestern's.
To me, with Joel Maturi announcing that as the Athletic Director of Minnesota this will be his final year, and that he will retire. The U of M needs to look into an exciting, nothing but the best will be accepted AD that will lay down the law on Tubby to get it in gear or get out. Tubby looks fire-less, and that lack of fire is obvious in the Gopher team on nights like last night. When you need to instill excitement in a team, in a long season, on a foggy gross Wednesday, in early February, in boring old Iowa, against a team you know you should beat, Tubby doesn't get them going and it results in another bad loss that pretty much erases a great 5 game run in terms of tournament resume. Tubby looks like he needs that fire instilled in him, and only then can he turn and instill it in his lackadaisical, average talent-wise team. If the new AD isn't able to do so, I think the glory days of the Gophers will have to be under a different coach. That AD will have to fire the guy that Gopher fan's thought and wished would be the savior and start all over again attempting to compete with the Big 10 elite that currently they don't measure up to.