I could be wrong -- maybe this has been around forever and I just haven't noticed it -- but the hottest new coaching phrase of the season seems to be some variation of the following: "I don't play politics."
Every time a bubble team gets a big win the coach of that bubble team is asked to assess his team's tourney chances in the wake of the victory. Coaches have always responded to this question with an artful dodge, but the new hotness appears to be an active assertion of the coach's own unwillingness to campaign on behalf of his team. It's a little like politicians who pretend to hate politics: Of course a coach knows exactly where his team stands on the bubble. His job is on the line, after all. But nobody wants to be that guy, because nobody likes that guy.
(Unless, of course, that guy is Tim Floyd, who is basically a huge clown. But that's a story for another time.)
Minnesota's Tubby Smith is among this group, in so far as he isn't playing politics. But Smith isn't dodging the bubble questions, either. Instead, after Minnesota's home loss to Michigan on Saturday, Smith went with honesty. In other words, he thinks his team is done. From the St. Paul Pioneer-Press:
"This is probably a game that probably does it in for us," the Gophers coach said, referring to what he told his players about their NCAA tournament hopes after a disappointing loss in front of a stunned sellout crowd of 14,625 at Williams Arena. [...] He summed his frustration up with, "This is bizarre."
"It was basically the same script of how we played in the last game," Smith said. "We don't get the stops. We don't get the rebounds. We don't have anyone scoring inside."
Of course, Smith's probably right. Without starting point guard Al Nolen, Minnesota has lost seven of its past eight games. The Gophers are now 17-11 overall and 6-10 in the Big Ten. Their RPI is a lackluster No. 60. And the wins that made them a tourney favorite for much of the season -- season-opening wins against North Carolina and West Virginia in Puerto Rico -- seem like they came years ago.
Still, it's unusual to hear a coach even broach the subject of his team's tournament chances. It's downright, well, bizarre to hear a coach tell his team -- and then the media -- that its season is essentially over.
Smith is clearly frustrated, and with good reason; 2010-11 is the second-straight promising Gophers season derailed by injuries and personnel woes, from Nolen to starting guard Devoe Joseph, who surprised Minnesota with a midseason transfer in January. But do his quotes say something larger about his desire to leave Minneapolis this offseason? There are always rumblings around Smith -- he was one of many candidates rumored to be in the picture at Oregon last summer -- and the impending job openings at Georgia Tech and NC State would seem tailor-made for him if he decided to leave.
What's more, no less reliable a source than our own Doug Gottlieb is already hearing the rumor-mill murmurs about Smith's potential departure:
The hottest chatter in coaching news is the speculation that Tubby Smith will be on the move this offseason. Three different head coaches told me the coaching fraternity is abuzz over whether Georgia Tech will buy out Paul Hewitt (reportedly in excess of $5 million dollars) and land Smith.
We have plenty of time to await that news. In the meantime, one thing is clear: Smith isn't happy. The extent of that unhappiness -- whether it's reserved to this year's team, or involves his program and situation at large -- will be one of the more intriguing stories in what should be an otherwise quiet rumor mill this spring.