Leading into the 2009-2010 Minnesota Men's Basketball season, Gophers fans were just grateful that they didn't have to watch another down of Tim Brewster's football program. An impressive exhibition season by many of the youngsters on Tubby Smith's team was followed up by a quick start and a win over a top-10 Butler squad. Three straight losses later and a quick reality check for the players and the team re-grouped and moved into the Big Ten Conference season.
With the Gophers as high as No. 16 in the country early in the season, fans hoped for that Big Ten Championship they have been missing. Even after the losses to Portland, Texas A+M, and Miami (Fla.), the Gophers had shown the ability to compete at an extremely high level. Their senior leadership, along with the upstart sophomore and junior classes, were leading them to impressive victories over soft competition.
Tubby Smith looked to have his team measured and was using his typical wholesale substitution system looking for depth and answers. The full-court press was causing havoc and led them to one of the highest turnover ratio's in the country.
But a suspension, a dismissal, some benchings, and a little bad luck later and the Gophers on the outside looking in when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. At this point, Minnesota is 14-10 overall (5-7 Big Ten), and would need to go at least 6-1 to just make it on the bubble.
Former Gophers Head Coach Dan Monson currently coaches at Long Beach State. He had little success during his years at Minnesota, but left Tubby Smith five contributors to this year's team: Lawrence Westbrook (Sr.), Damian Johnson (Sr.), Devron Bostick (Sr.), Blake Hoffarber (Jr.), and Al Nolen (Currently Suspended - Jr.)
After an NCAA Tournament bid last season and a first round loss to the Texas Longhorns, Gophers fans and the nation thought the program had taken the next step to making this team relevant again. Two very nice recruiting classes by Tubby Smith were highlighted by the signing of the much coveted top recruit in Minnesota, Royce White. A local kid, White was supposed to be the Gophers answer to their scoring troubles for the next four years.
We'll never know now, I think. White was suspended indefinitely from the Gophers due to legal issues regarding a theft at the Mall of America. After posting some questionable videos on youtube.com in which he basically made a jackass of himself and his coach, he was still considered part of the team.
During the month of January, though, it was made public that White was no longer enrolled at the University of Minnesota after a bizarre series of events that really were a distraction from the beginning of the season.
In addition, top transfer recruit Trevor Mbakwe was indefinitely suspended due to legal issues from a fight in Miami. Smtih continued to state in interviews that Mbakwe would not play until those issues were cleared. To this date his trial has been pushed back to March and he has not cleared the issue. Also, senior guard Devron Bostick was suspended for the first seven regular season games because of an undeclared violation of team policy.
When Tubby Smith left Kentucky to come to Minnesota, fans in Minnesota were ecstatic that they were getting an elite coach back at their university. Kentucky fans were ecstatic that they were getting rid of Smith after years of mediocrity with some superior talent.
Some critics said that Wildcats fans were just holding him to unrealistic expectations. They wanted an annual run to the Final Four, they wanted an SEC Championship at the very least, and considering the amount of talent Kentucky gets on a yearly basis, could they have been right? Was Tubby Smith overrated? Was Tubby Smith just a product of Rick Pitino's recruits when he won them a national title in 1998?
Maybe. And, maybe he is just a good coach with the inability to run a decent offense. In his time at Minnesota the offense that the Gophers run is really elementary at best. Most of time the players on the floor look like they don't know what set is being run. Not once has the offense looked in sync for an entire game of importance.
In their most important moments, the offense is stagnant, the players look lost, and when they win it's because of transitional offense. The half-court sets the team runs are so slow. The on-the-ball screens and looking to confuse the defense during every half-court set will not win you games against the Michigan State's, Purdue's, or Kentucky's of the world for that matter.
Can you blame the lack of talent in the upper classmen as the reason for the Gophers lack of success this season? No would have to be the answer considering where they went with practically the same group as last season. They added some freshmen who have been okay at best.
Blake Hoffarber leads the nation in three point field-goal percentage. Damian Johnson is an All-Big-Ten defender. Lawrence Westbrook and Al Nolen are the two that have caused the biggest problems. You can see that Westbrook is the leader of this team. His displeasure with Smith is evident and it shows.
He has rubbed off on Al Nolen who talks back to his coaches. He's now suspended and was the key to their defense when it was at its best. Westbrook was benched at multiple points in the season, and I'm not sure if it's because he wants to win more than anyone else or if he is mad his points just are not where they should be. He needs to play the wing and make plays against a teams two or three, typically in Smith's system he is forced to make miraculous things happen.
He is easily the best on the team at doing that on a one-on-one basis, but what the team needs he can't provide. They no longer can use the full-court press to turn games in their favor after the Nolen suspension. They have no true point guard on the court. Sophomore Devoe Joseph looks like he has the ability to be the shooting guard and do that very well, but his dribbling skills are very average. He turns the ball over at an extremely high rate when running the point, and doesn't seem comfortable running an offense where it revolves around the ability to play a one-on-one type of basketball to make plays.
Freshman point guard Justin Cobbs looks like he should be playing for a junior-college and should not be on a Big Ten court ever again. The stupid fouls in the Michigan game made me think he has no clue how to play basketball. His fouls looked intentional at meaningless points in the game.
Royce White and Rodney Williams were supposed to be the two freshmen that could come in and score immediately: It's obvious that dream has ended. Williams could be that one day, but he needs some work. He does have some nice hops and the ability to get separation, but there is little chance he will make that impact before he is a junior.
The two big men in the middle have been huge disappointments as they suffer their sophomore slumps. Ralph Sampson and Colton Iverson need to be playing together, and a ton of minutes. The Gophers offense should revolve around the two big men who have shown some nice touch around the rim.
Sampson seems to have developed a little quicker than Iverson, who looks unsure of himself since the Big Ten season opened up. They both need to add about 20 pounds this offseason and just pound their bodies down low every game. With both of them in the game and some guards who can get some separation and create space for Hoffarber, the team has a chance to be really good next year.
It's time to look towards the Fall of 2010 because this season is practically lost now. Tubby should start the following line-up every game the rest of the season:
C: Ralph Sampson
PF: Colton Iverson
SF: Paul Carter
SG: Blake Hoffarber
PG: Lawrence Westbrook / Rodney Williams
Something seriously needs to change in the backcourt, and if it's who brings the ball up the court, then make it happen. Even a point guard by committee approach is better than Cobbs. That kid needs a ton of offseason work and can't run an offense at this point.
Let Joseph, Westbrook, and Williams take the ball up and break guys down. Joseph has shown that he is a much better player off of the bench. Tubby needs to mix in Paul Carter as well during the final weeks of the season. He has the ability to break guys down and could be one the leaders on the team next season.
If nothing changes, this will be definitely be Smith's retirement gig and it will end embarrassingly unsuccessful.