No one wants a team to reach the point when a coaching change is a germane topic of conversation, but ignoring reality isn’t very flattering. Depending on how the rest of the season plays out, discussion of the future of the program will continue. If this conversation must be had, at the very least, it must be had in a thoughtful way. If you choose to take to Twitter, the water cooler, or god forbid the comment section of a newspaper website, please consider the following unsolicited advice.
If the team makes the tournament, Tubby is staying.
Whether you like him or not, or think merely making the tournament is good enough, Tubby Smith won’t be going anywhere if the Gophers make the tournament. Yes, just merely making the tournament would be a significant under-achievement, and yes, there is more than enough talent to win a game or two. However, as much as we would rather not admit it, making the tournament is still a big deal in Gopher land. Dan Monson did it only once, Clem did it only twice without cheating, and Tubby has done it twice. That would be a mere five non-scandalized tournament appearances is the last thirty seasons or so. Unless you have a vendetta against Tubby Smith, or want to sound like you have such a vendetta, you’d be well-advised to add a preemptive pardon to your calls for Tubby’s head in the event that the team does make the tournament.
Context matters, and the context of the Gopher program over the last couple decades is that they haven’t been particularly good in seasons that aren’t vacated.
Focus on the injury-free seasons.
Wins and losses, in the end, are all that matters. Luck, and especially bad luck in the form of injuries, does need to be taken into account when looking at wins and losses. No one enjoyed the back to back 6-12 Big Ten seasons, but basing a critique on two seasons when the most important player on the team was lost due to a season-ending injury just isn’t reasonable. After Devoe Joseph quit and Al Nolen broke his foot, that season went into a tailspin. Some of the harsher Tubby critics argued that the team should have been better, even without a real point guard. Their main argument is, wait for it, that Maverick Ahanmisi should have been point guard, and this would have somehow led to more wins. Yes, Blake Hoffarber would have been playing his natural position. No, Maverick Ahanmisi wouldn’t have been able to get the ball across half-court. Even with Trevor Mbakwe, last season’s team would have been lucky to sneak into the NCAA tournament. Without him, we witnessed what one would expect from a bubble-team at best without their best player.
In Tubby’s first-two, relatively healthy seasons, the team met expectations. If you weren’t satisfied with Tubby turning one of the worst Gopher basketball teams in the modern era into an NIT team his first season and an NCAA tournament team in his second season, I’d suggest you stop watching and caring about college basketball, because you’ll never be happy. Tubby’s third season was a significant disappointment because the team failed improve. Even though the team made the tournament, the team did not live up to its potential. Making the tournament was good, needing a desperate run through the Big Ten tournament was not good enough.
This season, Rodney Williams is the only important player to miss a game, and he has only missed one game. In many ways, the return of Trevor Mbakwe is an anti-injury, an unexpected addition to the roster. If this season’s slide continues, the results will be especially damaging considering the ever-rare Gopher good luck.
Recruiting isn’t the problem.
Getting good players to sign the proverbial dotted line isn’t the problem. Keeping the commitments of Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber obviously benefited the program. Bringing in Royce White, despite what later transpired, was the right decision at the time. Ralph Sampson III never lived up to what ultimately were unrealistic expectations, but he is one of the few players in team history to have 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, and 200 blocks. Colton Iverson, Devoe Joseph, and Justin Cobbs all proved to be legitimate Division I talent. Rodney Williams took awhile, but is a Big Ten talent. The Hollinses weren’t highly touted, but have proven to be good players with another year or two to get better. It is too soon to fully judge Elliott Eliason, Charles Buggs, Wally Ellenson, along with next season’s recruits, though all were early targets, and the early targets have tended to be good to very good players. The issue has not been getting the right players to commit.
Tubby’s harsher critics like to point out the alleged missed recruits, like Nate Wolters or Mike Muscala. There are usually only two or three open roster spots on any college basketball team, and there are many more Division I college basketball players hailing from Minnesota each season. Some players are bound to get away. Wolters and Muscala were not offered scholarships by any major college programs. If they were offered scholarships, those same critics would be criticizing those offers to players that aren’t “good enough”.
I do acknowledge that the spring recruits have not worked out well, but there were gaping holes in the roster. The timing of the holes necessitated filling in the gaps with what was available at the time. The big problem, is that those holes were there in the first place.
Roster management is the problem.
I don’t pretend to know the inner-workings of the basketball program. I do know that too many players left. Not all departures are created equal. Royce White, as should be obvious by now, wasn’t good for any team at any level. Devoe Joseph wasn’t interested in much more than himself. Paul Carter left to be closer to his ailing sister. The departures of Colton Iverson and Justin Cobbs on the other hand should have been preventable, and considering how desperately the team needed a point guard after Nolen’s injury and a physical big man last season, their departures were particularly damaging. It isn’t a coaches sole duty to keep kids happy, but it is part of the job. Keeping kids eligible is also part of the job, and Al Nolen’s ineligibility his junior year was a failure not only on Nolen’s part, but Tubby’s as well.
Roster management also involves correctly utilizing the players that are available, and regardless of when it happens, this will be Tubby Smith’s eventual downfall. We are now two-thirds of the way through the second season of essentially the same roster, and Tubby Smith still doesn’t know who to play and when. The line-change midway through the first-half of every game continues to kill momentum. Pulling starters at crucial times has once again reared its ugly head.
Playing combinations of players that can not be successful is the most baffling. A back-court of Julian Welch and Maverick Ahanmisi will not beat anyone off the dribble, and can not guard the perimeter. If either Hollins was on the court with either Welch or Ahanmisi, there is at least the potential that one of the reserve guards could be successful on offense and not a liability on defense. The front court rotation might be worse, lately at least. Mo Walker was not good enough to play in late-game situations during non-conference blow-outs, but there he was, as the focal point of the offense, against Illinois on Sunday.
Thanks to some blogger-like analysis by Amelia Rayno, we now know just how clueless Tubby Smith is to which players should be on the court. Tubby Smith used 13 different player combinations in the Illinois game, in February, in game 24. The time for experimentation ended a month ago, and for whatever reason, we didn’t see this type of experimentation when it should have been happening. Even more damning is Tubby Smith’s refusal to play the starters together the majority of the time, especially with the dramatic drop-off in quality after the top six or seven on the roster.
Coaches don’t have as much control on the outcome of a game as fans would like to give them credit for, but they do have complete control of which players are on the court, and Tubby Smith continues to demonstrate an inability to successfully deploy his roster.
Preparation is important, but hasn’t always been a problem.
Tubby Smith’s game preparation isn’t nearly as bad as some would like to claim. If the Gophers were completely unprepared for every opponent, they wouldn’t be losing games by small-margins, they’d be getting blown out. There is one exception. Why can’t the Gophers routinely beat Northwestern? They use a gimmick offense and a gimmick defense that no one else uses, because they don’t work, except against the Gophers. Take it away Zips.
Ignore the optics.
Bored columnist, especially in this town, love to practice lazy journalism. Instead of using their brains and attempting to provide actual insight, they love to throw out phrases like “should have lost” instead of “won” and spend most of their time on dissecting coaches quotes about players and whether a coach is taking enough of the blame. None of that matters. Coaches throw players under the bus all the time, right Bill self? And a coach does not make it to major college basketball program without thinking they are right all the time. If you are expecting contrition from a coach after every loss, it isn’t going to happen, and it doesn’t need to. Wins and losses matter. How they look or sound don’t.
Recognize the reality of any coaching change.
A coaching change is serious matter, and it should be discussed seriously. There are no guarantees. Firing Tubby Smith does not mean the next coach will be better than the current one. It does not mean the team will be better with a new coach. Fans of the Vikings, Timberwolves, Wild, and Gopher football all learned this the hard way, sometime multiple times. Assuming that changing coach leads to success like flipping a switch leads to light is not wise. When there is a coaching change, because Tubby is not immortal, there will be growing pains. Players won’t fit the system, and they’ll struggle to adjust to new roles. There are bound to be some personality clashes. Some players won’t like their new roles, and some might leave. The potential downsides are real, and should not be forgotten.
Be smart about Smart, and don’t flip for Flip.
Speaking of lazy columnists, don’t assume that Shaka Smart is any sort of coach in waiting. He did work for Norwood Teague while Teague was the Athletic Director at VCU, but that doesn’t mean he wants to work for him again, or in Minnesota. Flip Saunders hasn’t coached college basketball, and hasn’t been a smashing success anywhere lately. Brad Stevens loves Butler, and he might never leave. In short, don’t assume the Gophers will have their first choice for a new coach. If Shaka Smart was in Teague’s back pocket all along, Tubby Smith wouldn’t have gotten a gold-plated contract extension. That doesn’t mean there aren’t several potential excellent coaching candidate out there. Realistic options include
Brian Greggory Gregg Marshall, Dane Fife, Chris Mooney, Chris Mack, and whichever coach leads a mid-major on a deep run in this year’s tournament. There are plenty of coaches who have risen from mid-major and high-mid programs, but there are also many who don’t work out, as Gopher basketball fans can tell you.
Hope it doesn’t happen.
If there is a coaching change, it will happen because the team finished falling off cliff. Openly rooting for a coaching change is openly rooting for the Gophers to lose, and lose a lot. And if you’re doing that, you lose credibility as a Gopher fan.