I try not be a reactionary perched on an imaginary bully pulpit screaming into the storm after the Gophers lose a basketball team. People have been calling for Tubby Smith’s head since the Gophers were swept by an absolutely terrible Illinois team in his first season. I’d like to think that those people, as obviously mentally unstable as they were, were just trying to make Tubby Smith feel at home. After all, he had just left Kentucky. Turning one of the worst teams into college basketball into marginal bubble team in one year while only adding a freshman that couldn’t shoot and another that could do nothing but shoot was a remarkable coaching job. Getting the Gophers to an NCAA tournament in his second year was more than impressive, especially since most fans and observers thought the situation he inherited would be at least a four year turnaround job. Despite personality conflicts, the indefinite forced red-shirting star new-comers, and the suspension of the starting point guard, he willed the team to the NCAA tournament again, knocking off Michigan State and Purdue in the process. He put the best players on the court and let them play. No, they didn’t win a game in either NCAA tournament, but both teams they faced were under-seeded and bad match-ups. There were complaints then too, but the complainers seemed to forget that it was only the second time in school history that the team had been to two consecutive NCAA tournaments. I gave Tubby a free pass last season, at least in terms of wins and losses. No coach could win with that motley crew. This fall Tubby Smith admitted that he should have had Maverick Ahanmisi play point-guard more, but with four interior players and spot up shooter as the only players with any experience, he put the best players on the court, and gave the Gophers a chance to win every game. They didn’t obviously, but these things happen, especially to the Gophers.
It is difficult for me to become concerned about the state of a Gopher athletic program. Historical perspective makes it nearly impossible. Both the football and basketball team have been mediocre at best for most of the last half century. The Clem years were great, but they were nothing more than a facade of winning basketball built on the scaffolding of corruption. They were fun, and they did happen regardless of what the NCAA says, but they weren’t real, and they weren’t reflective of the history of Golden Gopher basketball, except that the best seasons tend to be declared retroactively non-existent by the powers that be. It has been almost 20 years since the Gophers won an NCAA tournament game that counted and thirty years since the last Big Ten Championship that counted. As much as we would like to pretend that the Gophers have a winning tradition, they don’t. Tubby Smith’s tenure with the Gophers has been one of the most successful, and it has been scandal free. This is no small feat for a basketball program known for many dubious deeds.
Given this history, and the typical run of bad luck that strikes down every Minnesota team on the brink of success, Trevor Mbkawe’s blown out knee was par for the course. Luckily, the cupboard wasn’t bare. The loss of the team’s best player would be big, and getting to the NCAA tournament was no longer a reasonably attainable goal. There were, and are pieces to work with. There are plenty of guards, a forward finally playing at his natural position, and a skilled center, even if few want him to have the skills that he has. Somehow the team kept winning, and the 12-1 non-conference record was what I predicted before the season began.
I never thought the Tubby’s line changes made much sense. The team always seemed to suffer with five worse players on the court. It was tolerable during the non-conference season though, and as long as the team kept winning I was happy. I was even happy as long as they were competitive on the road. Blame the Clem Haskins teams of my formative years as a fan that couldn’t beat anyone on the road. Losing in double-overtime at Illinois, where the Gophers had won exactly once in 15 years and where the Final Four team that wasn’t couldn’t win, fine. Playing a close game against a ranked opponent on the road, keeping in mind that the Gopher have not beat a ranked team on the road since 1997, fine. Losing at home against Iowa was not fine.
It isn’t even that the Gophers lost on Wednesday night. Strange losses happen all the time in the Big Ten, and in college basketball in general. Ask Wisconsin or Kansas about that. It isn’t that they lost to Iowa. The Gophers were not going to beat Iowa in every sport until the Mayans declare that the world is ending. I’ve even argued that the Big Ten is better off with a border rivalry that creates interest on both sides of the border. The real problem, the real reason for the concern is how they lost, with indecision and disinterest.
Alarm bells went off when the Gophers could not adjust to Iowa’s zone at the end of the first half. It wasn’t the players fault, especially the players on the court. Ralph Sampson III and Rodney Williams aren’t zone busters, and Chip Armelin, Joe Coleman, and Maverick Ahanmisi should never shoot three-pointers. Tubby didn’t notice, didn’t care, or didn’t think it was a problem not having a single player with even a mediocre jump-shot against a defense designed to force jump-shots. And then there was the panic of the second half. Maverick pointing randomly at different spots on the court while refusing to pass, dribble, or do anything other than point while the shot clock was tick-tocking away. This was not just a case of poor execution. It was a case of poor preparation. The team was clearly not prepared to play against a simple and poorly executed defense. This was not an active zone. It was passive, monolithic, and easy to exploit. Instead the Gophers stood still. Tubby mentioned after the game that the team played scared. Zones are not scary if you are prepared, or have any idea where to stand, cut, and pass. The Gophers did not.
Somehow, and I am still not quite sure how it happened, the Gophers clawed their way back from what should have been an insurmountable deficit, and were a simple left-handed lay-up away from sending the game to overtime. Once again Maverick Ahanmisi missed a crucial shot at the buzzer. Once again, there was no reason for him to be in the game. For better or worse, through his first few years coaching the Gophers, Tubby Smith put his best players on the court. Maverick belongs at the bottom of the back court rotation, yet he played 30 minutes against Iowa. He took what would have been a game tying shot when he shouldn’t have even been in the game, again.
Coaches need to be able to adapt their system to the players that are available and they need to put the best combinations of players on the court. Tubby Smith could argue that he was doing that until last night. Now he has the empirical evidence that something needs to change. The Iowa game was his warning. Evolve or become extinct. Failure to adapt has ended many careers in many industries. The season isn’t lost, yet, and he has pieces to work with. Even without Trevor Mbakwe the Gophers are one of the more athletic teams in the Big Ten. Tubby needs to let them run. Playing at the slowest pace in the Big Ten strips the team of their biggest advantage. And it is hard to have any advantage when the best players are not on court and the best combinations are not on the court together. Andre Hollins needs to be in the starting line-up. He may play out of control and commits turnovers more than even a freshman should, but he can run, pass, and shoot, and doesn’t have to decide 20 seconds ahead of time what he is going to do. Joe Coleman, Chip Armelin, and even, yes, Maverick have a role on the team, but it is on the court with teammates who can compensate for their weaknesses. Chip and Joe can’t shoot, so put them on the court with one of the players that can shoot. The defense will be reluctant to collapse if they know they will get burned. The players defended the shooters will have to help if a driver is getting to easily to the lane.
I’ve never coached a basketball team in my life. I know I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even know if my suggestions are practical. I do know that what we all saw on the court Wednesday night was unacceptable. Tubby’s task the rest of the season is to identify the best players, teach them to play better, and adapt to their strengths. Tubby owes it to himself and his legacy to confront reality. If he can get the job done, he needs to start getting the job done. If he can’t, then Tubby Smith and the Gophers need to consider their options.
Tubby Smith arrived to a hero’s welcome, and justified that with his performance over his first three seasons. Unless things improve, he is in very real danger of losing whatever good will he has left.
The Iowa game was Tubby Smith’s warning, and you only get one warning.