It’s ugly, folks.
The Gophers have officially reeled off six straight conference losses (and seven of eight) and have found themselves only a half-game away from the official cellar of the Big Ten. Did anyone think we’d be here as little as 13 months ago? On January 29th, 2011 the Gophers were 16-4 and 5-3 in the conference and ranked #18 in the nation. Little more than a calendar year ago the Minnesota Golden Gophers were officially a nationally-relevant team. It’s almost unthinkable to imagine that they are on the precipice of missing out on the postseason for the second consecutive season. In fact, a loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers to cap the regular season may seal the team’s fate, making even an NIT bid unrealistic.
This far into the Tubby Smith regime I’m sure we all thought it would be milk and honey around every corner with Sweet Sixteens and conference championships and everything that comes along with being a strong team. Instead, we’ve found ourselves chasing mediocrity and trying to avoid the conference basement for the second consecutive year. The downfall has been quick and shocking once again this year and has been a product of uncontrollable events (Trevor Mbakwe), lack of execution on the floor (e.g. Julian Welch’s missed FTs against Illinois) and poor coaching (Smith inability to prepare the team to play against the Iowa zone, for instance). Frustratingly enough, there hasn’t been a single problem that fans can point to and say, “there we go, that’s our problem” which means that providing a solution is even more difficult.
Saturday will mark the end of the regular season, with the Gophers playing to not finish in last place. And though the result doesn’t largely impact the way the season will be viewed in it’s entirety, since everyone can agree that it has been a sizeable failure, it provides an opportunity to step back once we’ve seen every regular season game play out and take stock of just what we have in this team and where they’re at. It’s certainly not a simple explanation.
Here’s who the Gophers are:
They are a fairly young team with talented players who present an athletic advantage over most opponents. Their on-court execution leaves something to be desired and their ability to convert during crunch time is certainly an area of improvement. Unfortunately, for this season, they lost their best player before conference play even began, undercutting an important veteran presence and forcing the lineup to adjust on the fly to fill in for one of the most physical players in the entire conference. They also have a veteran coach who has brought in legitimate talent and has recruited Minnesota players quite well but has not met expectations as of late. In his defense, he has run into an incredible string of bad luck, losing some of his best players to transfer and injury in consecutive years. However, he has shown the inability to get the most out of his players and has at times appeared to have arrived at games ill-prepared.
That’s who the Gophers are – a team with talent but the inability to tap into it on a nightly basis for various reasons – but where do they go from here? The answers lie in how they move forward with personnel, on-court execution and coaching.
The Gophers have lost some of their best players to injury and transfer over the past few years, which has significantly impacted their ability to win. Unfortunately, this has reflected poorly on the team overall and has done plenty to indict Tubby. It’s insane to think that Smith could control the integrity of Al Nolen’s foot or Trevor Mbakwe’s knee, but these are real events that have led to a downturn in execution on the court. The Gophers haven’t been at full strength in the majority of their games the past 13 months, through no fault of the coach. Transfers are a little more gray, but honestly, can you really fault the team for kicking off a troublemaker like Devoe Joseph? Can you blame Justin Cobbs for wanting to transfer to a program where he would get more playing time? The Royce White situation was a fiasco and it was handled very poorly, but that was a Joel Maturi issue and not a Tubby Smith one. It’s not as if the injuries and have been 100% responsible for the regression of the team, but each of the players above are very talented and taking away their presence on the court does nothing but reduce the overall ability of the team and add turmoil.
That said, the Gophers will be at full strength next year, only losing Ralph Sampson and bringing everyone back with a year of experience under their belts. Tubby hasn’t had a year yet that didn’t include some sort of deviation from normalcy and everyone is looking for an excuse to grade him on the talent he brought in. That can only be done when players are healthy and on the court, which hasn’t happened in a long, long time.
Are the players we have good enough to bring the team to the next level? I think the answer is yes. Like I said above, the players we’ve thrown into the fire the past calendar year weren’t necessarily supposed to see the court in the capacity they have so far. Elliott Eliason, while we saw a lot of growth from him, wasn’t supposed to be used this much just like Blake Hoffarber wasn’t supposed to be used as a point guard at the end of last season. This year’s team was supposed to be anchored by Trevor Mbakwe, who was the de facto team leader. Without his leadership it was basically a vacuum on the floor for a veteran presence and senior leadership is a necessary component for most successful teams, except Kentucky.
That’s also aside from the fact that some of the best players on the team are Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman, two true freshmen thrown into the Big Ten ocean and told to swim. Throwing those guys up against guys like William Buford and Jordan Taylor and expecting greatness is borderline unfair. They have the talent, but they can’t carry a team at this point in their careers. We saw a lot of growth from Rodney Williams after he moved the the four-spot as well, though his intensity has waned at the end of the season as frustrations have boiled over. We also have seen Austin Hollins mature in his second year. The Gophers will bring back nearly everyone from the team next year, which gives them a leg up on a lot of teams and a great opportunity to start the season strong and with great continuity.
Here’s where Gopher Nation is quickly becoming divided. Does Tubby still have “it” or is he merely going through the motions? Can he still coach and develop players? Is the lack of wins the past two years a product of him not being the coach we thought he was? As with many things in life, the answer is somewhere in the middle. He’s probably not the championship coach he was at Kentucky, but he’s also not a coach who oversees basement-dwelling Big Ten teams. The guy has seen more turmoil the past few years than anyone could have possibly imagined, and the transfers and injuries have wreaked tremendous havoc on the team over the past three years. Unfortunately, even without someone like Mbakwe this year, he has had the team completely ill-prepared on several occasions, which is very frustrating. But he’s also a few made baskets away from having this team in a position to make the NCAA Tournament after a horrific loss to injury.
Firing Tubby Smith would be a mistake at this point, if nothing else because there is no one to take his place. He gives the team the best chance to win at this particular time and, in my opinion, hasn’t gotten enough credit for the guys he has brought in, especially from Minnesota. He hasn’t been given a full deck in more than two years and is being unfairly judged using criteria that assumes he has every player resource at his disposal. However, should he fail to meet expectations in the next two seasons with guys healthy guys he’s brought in himself, then it’s probably time to cut the cord and move to someone else. Now is not that time.