When Tubby Smith was fired after the Gophers’ second-round loss to Florida in the NCAA tournament, one of the major complaints among fans and administration was that in his six years at Minnesota, the legendary coach was never able to take the program to the next level.
Now, in his first season at Texas Tech, the 62-year-old coach appears on the verge of doing just that.
After wins over TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma to start the month (I guess it’s not Smith to blame for the Gophers’ perennial February dives), the Red Raiders are 5-8 in the Big 12 — perhaps the best conference in college basketball right now.
Texas Tech also threatened to pull off huge upsets in its past two games.
None of this would be so stunning — Tech is still just tied for seventh in the 10-team conference, after all — if it wasn’t for the fact that the Red Raiders have been SO bad in recent years. Tech hasn’t won more than five conference games since 2008 and has managed a total of just four wins in the previous two seasons. With five more games left on the regular-season schedule, the Raiders even have a shot to dance for the first time since 2007.
And no such spark was expected this season. The Raiders returned some experience but were expected by most to finish near the Big 12 basement.
Suddenly Smith — who coached Kentucky to a national championship in 1998 but won just one NCAA tournament game during his tenure in Minneapolis — is looking like a great hire for a team unworthy even of the term “rebuilding.”
And the sense of hope seems to be palpable. Tech sold out the normally echo-filled United Spirit Arena for its game against Oklahoma State, only the 11th sellout in the 15-year-old building’s history, last occurring in 2007.
“It is wonderful,” Smith told the Dallas Morning News. “It shows the hard work of a lot of people to make this happen. We hope that we can play to the level of support that we have gotten. I am excited, and our players are excited. It also gives validation that we are moving in the right direction with the program.”
Perhaps the most telling improvement can be seen in the Raiders’ recent losses.
At No. 17 Iowa State on Saturday, Tech — which Smith has made into a very sound offensive rebounding team, just as he did with the Gophers — grabbed 14 offensive boards and slowed the pace enough to keep it close with the Cyclones. Tech lost by just six in one of the toughest road environments there is.
Then, against Kansas in Lubbock on Tuesday, the Raiders shot 50 percent from three-point range and had five players score in double digits only to lose on a last-second layup by Andrew Wiggins, nearly upsetting the No. 8 Jayhawks.
Regardless of what the Raiders do down the stretch, it seems obvious that Texas Tech, led by Smith in what most likely will be his final coaching job, is better than we thought it would be. Significantly better.
There weren’t many times at Minnesota people could say that about Smith’s teams.
College basketball short takes
• With Syracuse finally falling, just one undefeated remains: Wichita State. Just how shocking was that Orange loss at home to Boston College, which was 6-17 coming in? ESPN Stats & Info tells us that BPI, ESPN’s version of the Ratings Percentage Index, gave BC just a 1.2 percent shot at beating Syracuse, far worse than last season’s biggest upset.
In that one — TCU’s win over Kansas in February — BPI handed the Horned Frogs a 4.5 percent chance at victory.
• Much has been said, written, spoken and screamed about the NCAA’s new fouling guidelines this season. But as Matt Norlander at CBSSports.com points out, just a month away from the Big Dance, scoring is still way up around college basketball. The number of possessions in an average game is up (from 66.7 to 68.1 heading through Wednesday), points per game are up (67.5 to 71), points per possession are up (1.012 to 1.043) and turnovers per game are down (13.3 to 12.7). All of this change, Norlander points out, without the game becoming a “whistle fest.” Team fouls are up, but only slightly, from 17.7 to 19.3.
• Think storming courts is all passion and good fun? Not for everyone. Arizona has played victim in two court rushes this season — at California and at Arizona State — and in the offseason will be looking into how to prevent such situations in the future, according to ESPN’s Andy Katz.
Apparently Arizona wants to bring up the issue of safety in the Pac-12 meetings this summer. Of course, the SEC has already taken a hard line with court rushes — issuing a fine to any school that rushes. Katz says he doesn’t expect Arizona to pursue anything quite so dramatic.
Big Ten power poll
1. Wisconsin: The Badgers are back at the top, making this the flip-floppiest season ever. But after a four-game win streak that included Michigan State at home and Michigan on the road it’s hard to deny.
2. Michigan: Credit the Wolverines for consistency. They’ve dropped three, but all three are understandable. It’s hard to get this deep into the season without a bad loss.
3. Michigan State: It feels like it’s been a while since the Spartans have won a truly meaningful game (since they were at Iowa nearly a month ago).
4. Ohio State: Suddenly the top has gotten a lot more interesting, with Wisconsin and the Buckeyes perking back up.
5. Iowa: Losses to each of the above teams keeps the Hawkeyes from ranking higher.
6. Nebraska: OK, a winning record in late April with two victories over ranked teams: Who had it? Bueller? Bueller? Tim Miles, color me impressed.
7. Minnesota: That home loss to Illinois has the Gophers barely clinging to the bubble.
8. Northwestern: This is a bad time for a four-game losing streak.
9. Purdue: The Boilermakers haven’t turned blips of optimism into real success.
10. Indiana: Insert joke about the program crumbling here, after a piece of Assembly Hall fell this week.
11. Penn State: The Nittany Lions have been a factor in the Big Ten’s unpredictability.
12. Illinois: The Illini won at Minnesota, but they’re still in the basement.