Monday, March 25, 2013
For Tubby Smith and Gophers, it was time
By Eamonn Brennan
Two weeks ago, after his team's 51-49 loss to Illinois, Tubby Smith sat down at his news conference in the bowels of the United Center and tried to answer the same question -- differently phrased -- over and over: Why?
He sighed and rubbed his temples and looked at the stat sheet and tried to explain why the Gophers had finished their pre-NCAA tournament season with 11 losses in 16 games. Why his team could swarm No. 1 Indiana in its own building but couldn't focus against Nebraska or Purdue on the road. Why the Gophers still couldn't stop turning the ball over, why they couldn't give consistent effort on defense, and most of all, why -- despite having a sixth-year senior and former Big Ten rebounding champ in Trevor Mbakwe who had returned from an ACL injury to make one final March run -- the Gophers never found a clear leader.
After another disappointing late-season performance, Minnesota has decided to part ways with coach Tubby Smith.
"We just haven't had that take-charge, 'I got it under control, I'm in control here' type person," Smith said.
Smith's answer -- that the team lacked leadership -- was a common refrain for him this season. It has some merit: You can't be with players every second of every day. You need hard workers to instill that in their teammates, and you need players who embrace the big moment and make their teammates feel trusted and supported and one big happy family. I get all of that.
But you're the coach. You get paid seven figures; your players get a scholarship, a dorm room and some free food. You're standing 15 feet from these 18- to 22-year-olds during games, you get approximately 453 timeouts per every 40 minutes of basketball, you see them every day during the season, you can work out with them in the summers -- at what point do you have to admit that it's on you? That if a college basketball coach is there to do anything -- after all, he can't set down screens -- it's to recruit promising players and then cultivate leadership and maturity among them? And that if they don't have those qualities by their fourth year in your program (or, in Mbakwe's case, his sixth), that maybe that whole process isn't going so well?
Many will cite Smith's 46-62 record in the Big Ten, but even more damning is his record in February. To wit:
All told that's 15-29 in February, the month in which college basketball teams are supposed to be improving and even peaking in advance of the NCAA tournament. It is not the be-all and end-all, and Smith did suffer an inordinate number of bad breaks with injuries and defections, but it can't be explained away. It's why this weekend's win over similarly cooked No. 6 seed UCLA was the Gophers' first tournament win under Tubby. They just never got better down the stretch.
This season was particularly frustrating in that regard, because there were none of the horribly timed injuries or defections that plagued Smith in recent years. There may have been personnel issues -- Mbakwe never seemed to get along with his coach, and he didn't exactly start the season off with a leadership bang -- but at the very least the Gophers were whole. They were promising, athletic, deep, with as physical a front line and as imposing a guard tandem as anyone in the country. Despite some obvious flaws (turnovers, most importantly) they began the season 15-1 and amassed some of the more unimpeachable RPI numbers in the country.
But they never got better. If anything, they got worse. They finished eighth in the Big Ten in points per possession allowed. They turned the ball over at a higher rate than any team in the league. Given that Minnesota led the nation in offensive rebounding rate, turnovers were doubly bad, because it meant the Gophers weren't even giving themselves a shot to go up and get the ball. And this very obvious flaw was never corrected during the season. In the loss to Illinois, Minnesota turned the ball over 19 times ... in 55 possessions.
Smith is by no means a bad coach. He won a national title at Kentucky, and he has a list of impressive credentials on his résumé, including 18 20-win seasons in his 21 years as a head coach. Frustrated Minnesota fans clapping along during this post should at least brace themselves for the other side of the coin: Minnesota is not a particularly desirable job. There are no practice facilities to speak of. It is cold. The Barn is charming, but 17-year-olds typically prefer futuristic and flashy to charm. Recruiting against the rest of the Big Ten is hard enough already, but now that Iowa is locking down more and more in-state talent and Iowa State is becoming a resurgent power under Fred Hoiberg -- not to mention the huge money Nebraska is investing into its program right now -- well, let's just say Gophers fans ought to be realistic about what to expect. The ceiling is limited. It's a challenge.
But so what? That doesn't mean they, or Teague, should be satisfied. In the past few years Gophers teams have not only been mediocre but downright lifeless. For whatever reason, Smith never got it going, never imbued the program with any energy or spark. Systemic challenges or no, who wants to settle for that?
No, the point is to compete. College basketball teams compete for tangible things -- Big Ten titles and tournament bids and Final Four appearances and banners -- but they also compete in more intangible ways. They compete with effort and hustle and spirit and a sense of community around an alma mater and players that kids can look up to, and if everyone buys in you don't have to go to the Final Four every year for fans to be happy. They just want to watch their team play hard.
Tangibly and intangibly, Smith's Gophers too often didn't compete -- even in this, their most promising and injury-free season.
What better sign that it's time for a coach to move on than that?