A couple of baskets, a few rebounds, or key defensive stops in crunch time can change how your fans look at whether you had a successful season.
The easiest measuring stick for fans in assessing whether their favorite college basketball team is successful program is whether their team is consistently receiving an NCAA bid on a regular basis.
Of course, when you are making trips to the Final Four every three of four years you then know that your favorite team is among the elite in college hoops.
The University of Minnesota in hiring Coach Tubby Smith had high hopes that he would make the Gophers into one of the more consistent and successful programs in the country.
Eventually, Minnesota fans dreamed that their program would become one of the elite programs in college hoops under Tubby’s tutelage.
Last year, the Gophers finished 22-11 and Minnesota fans believed that the future looked bright for the team to regularly make trips to the NCAA tournament.
While Minnesota started the season without a legitimate Big Ten Player of the Year candidate, no team in the Big Ten returned more players averaging more than 15 minutes of playing time.
Fans expected Minnesota to build upon their success from last year. Minnesota boosted a solid backcourt with experience; a stingy shot-blocking front line and one of the best recruiting classes in the country.
Most pollsters agreed with the enthusiasm in Minneapolis and ranked the Gophers among the top 25 teams in the country at the beginning of the season.
Unfortunately, Minnesota will not finish among the top 25 teams in the country at the end of the regular season and with two games remaining in the regular season there is no guarantee that the Gophers will even make the NCAA tournament.
Whenever a college teams fails to live up to pre-season expectations, it is only a matter of time before questions are asked about whether the team is being led by the right coach.
Coach Smith isn’t immune to this scrutiny as some Minnesota hoop fans have subtly suggested that Coach Smith might not be the right person for the job.
The criticism of Coach Smith falls into the following three categories: 1) Minnesota has had too many off-court issues; 2) Minnesota can’t execute a half-court offense late in the game; and 3) Minnesota can’t play with the “big boys” and is stuck as a second tier team.
Minnesota clearly has had too many off-court issues this year.
Three key players that are supposed to be in maroon and gold this year are in street clothes. Starting point guard Al Nolen was declared academically ineligible on January 13.
Incoming freshman Royce White left the team without playing a minute. Transfer Trevor Mbwake is suspended pending resolution of a criminal matter in Florida.
In addition, senior reserve Devron Bostick was suspended several games for his involvement in an altercation.
Senior and leading scorer Lawrence Westbrook during the course of the season has also missed a start and seen his playing time diminished for failing to follow team rules.
Coach Smith, however, shouldn’t be criticized for the off-court issues of his team as he has applied a firm hand and he has handled the distraction well.
Coach Smith has stayed on message throughout the season with the focus on the next opponent and the future.
In listening to the players in post-game interviews they clearly support Coach Smith. The players also appear to have bonded as a tight knit group, all of the players recently shaved their heads in a show support to Paul Carter and his sister. Carter’s younger sister is battling leukemia.
In the last few minutes of a ball game, Minnesota can’t execute a half-court offense. The Achilles heel for the Gophers all year has been their inability to get good looks at the basket during crunch time.
However, when you look at the adjustments made by Coach Smith during the course of the season you have to appreciate that he is making the best out of a bad situation and in the end may have found a silver lining.
Nolen as a point guard in the half-court offense had little difficulty in getting past the first line of defense to the basket. Unfortunately, Nolen could not always finish as he had struggled getting his shot off among the trees.
In Nolen’s absence, sophomore Devoe Joseph has been given the reins to the team. As expected, Joseph initially struggled finding the right balance between looking for his shot and creating scoring opportunities for his teammates.
Joseph, however in his last two games, has looked every bit the part of a true point guard.
In addition, Coach Smith has strategically used the height and passing skills of Ralph Sampson III to the team’s advantage by periodically getting him off the block and into the free throw line extended area. The move by Coach Smith has given the Gophers more good looks at the basket in the second half.
Taking Sampson III off the block has allowed Forwards Damian Johnson and Paul Carter more room to slash to the basket and use their post moves to get good shots.
Ralph also seems more comfortable facing the basket and with his soft touch from within 20 feet of the basket he is more of an offensive threat for the Gophers than when he has his back to the basket.
Minnesota isn’t going to have many impressive wins on its resume at the end of the year. The Gophers' signature wins this year came against then ranked No. 10 Butler on a neutral site at the Anaheim Classic and at home in the Barn against Ohio State.
While the Buckeyes are currently ranked No. 9 in the country, Ohio State was unranked when they lost to the Gophers.
Criticism that Minnesota is not making progress in competing against the “big boys” however is misplaced especially when you review how the team did against teams ranked in the Top 25 last year and against teams ranked in the Top 25 this year.
Last year, the Gophers 22-11 and went 3-5 against teams ranked among the top 25 in the country. Here is how Minnesota fared last year:
12/20 Beat No. 9 Louisville 70-64
12/31 Lost to No. 15 Michigan State 70-58
1/3 Beat No. 23 Ohio State 68-59
1/22 Lost to No. 18 Purdue 70-62
1/29 Beat No. 20 Illinois 59-36
2/4 Lost to No. 14 Michigan State 76-47
2/26 Lost to No. 20 Illinois 52-41
3/13 Lost to No. 6 Michigan State 64-56
The win against the Cardinals on Dec. 20 likely deserves an asterisk. Louisville played Mississippi at 9:00 p.m. on Dec. 18 in a hard fought 77-68 game in Cincinnati. Louisville then had to travel to play Minnesota at 2 p.m. in Glendale, Ariz. Who made Louisville’s travel arrangements? Goldy Gopher?
This year, the Gophers are 2-6 against teams ranked among the top 25 in the country.
11/26 Beat No. 10 Butler 82-73
1/5 Lost No. 4 Purdue 79-60
1/13 Lost No. 8 Michigan State 60-53
1/23 Lost No. 7 Michigan State 65-64
1/31 Lost No. 24 Ohio State 85-63
2/18 Beat No. 16 Wisconsin 68-52
2/24 Lost No. 3 Purdue 59-58
When you look at the Gophers schedule this season, three things stand out.
First, the Gophers dropped two one point losses to teams (Spartans and Boilermakers) ranked in the top 10 in the country.
Accordingly, Minnesota was one play from matching last year’s record against ranked teams and was two plays away for improving upon last year’s record.
Second, the Big Ten competition that the Gophers are playing against is thought of among coaches and sportswriters in the country as being better than last year.
Last year, the Gophers played only one Big Ten team that was ranked among the top 10 in the country. This year, the Gophers played three Big Ten teams that were ranked among the top 10 in the country.
Third, the Gophers are making progress against the current standard bearer in the Big Ten – Michigan State. Last year, the Gophers lost three games to the Spartans by a margin of 49 points.
This year, the Gophers lost two games to the Spartans by only 8 points. If the Gophers could have made one of their last three shots at home against the Spartans, they would have beat Michigan State.
Currently, the Gophers sit at 17-11 with two games left in the regular season. Minnesota travels to Michigan on March 2 and they then come back to the Barn to finish the season at home on March 7.
If the Gophers win their final two games and win at least one game in the Big Ten tournament, the Gophers will likely receive an NCAA bid.
Minnesota’s resume will be NCAA tournament worthy by virtue of accumulating 20 wins and finishing in the top half of a conference that currently boasts four teams among the Top 20 teams in the country.
So, everything is fine with Coach Tubby Smith? No, I think if Coach Smith was asked he would acknowledge that this year’s squad has left too many plays on the court this season.
A couple of clutch shots, a couple tough stops, and a few plays were the Gophers outhustle their opponents for a rebound over the next two weeks and not only will no one question whether Coach Smith should be on the hot seat but he will likely once again be the toast of the town.