Three years in, progress under Smith is at a crawl

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 4, 2010 - 3:16 PM

Gophers basketball has failed to gain much, if any, momentum under the high-priced coach.

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Tubby Smith

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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The complaints over Dan Monson's tenure at Minnesota were numerous and included this: Players that appeared to have talent seldom showed improvement and occasionally went backward.

We are now in the third season with the costly and much praised Tubby Smith in charge, and it's sad to report the roster has taken on a Monson-like quality.

Last winter, the Gophers played the two large freshmen, Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson, side-by-side and to good effect for stretches. The expectation was that two tall, raw rookies would show major improvement as sophomores. That hasn't been the case -- with Sampson's play remaining erratic and Iverson undergoing a mysterious decline.

Sampson played 22 1/2 minutes and averaged 4.4 rebounds and 5.9 points in the Big Ten a year ago. Halfway through this conference schedule, his per-game minutes have increased by five, his rebounds by one and his points by 1.7.

His pattern has been to be a force for a stretch, and then to disappear for crucial minutes (as against Michigan State in late January).

Iverson played 17 1/2 minutes and averaged 3.2 rebounds and 4.3 points in the Big Ten a year ago. He's lost two minutes per game, his rebounds are the same, and he's averaging a minuscule 1.9 points.

The young man from Yankton, S.D., was in need of scoring moves around the basket as a freshman, and that's still the case after several more months of working with Tubby's staff.

Two other players that Smith brought in for the 2008-09 season were junior college transfers Devron Bostick and Paul Carter. Bostick was the national junior college player of the year and advertised as a guard with an all-around game. Carter was a lean athlete alleged to have a tremendous upside.

Bostick was a bust even before his six-game suspension for an undisclosed misdeed earlier ths winter.

Carter played with a team that toured China last summer and was said to be all the rage. And then he returned for his junior season and has been the same player: an occasional leap that draws a yelp from the home crowd, but rarely a factor in deciding a game.

That was 80 percent of Smith's allegedly strong recruiting group for 2008: Sampson, Iverson, Bostick and Carter. They either have stayed about the same, washed out or backslid.

The fifth recruit in what was Tubby's first real class was Devoe Joseph. With Al Nolen Jr. flunked out, Devoe's the starting point guard and showing signs of progress as a sophomore.

This wasn't exactly the forecast in the fall of 2008: that one of the five new faces would be on the rise by the closing weeks of a second Big Ten season.

And that bunch has turned out to be a dramatic success compared to Tubby's signees for 2009: freshmen Royce White, Rodney Williams and Justin Cobbs and junior college transfer Trevor Mbakwe.

White and the Gophers officially split ways Wednesday. This left his statistics in a five-month association with Smith's program as five misdemeanors (three pending adjudication), two retire- ments and zero minutes played.

Finding another school could be an option for White. He's a veteran of only one transfer -- booted from DeLaSalle and winding up at Hopkins High School -- and might want to consult with Mbakwe, an expert on the subject.

Since March 2006, Mbakwe has played at two high schools (Henry Sibley, St. Bernard's) and two colleges (Marquette, Miami Dade), and now he's waiting for an assault case in Miami to be resolved in order to play for the Gophers next season.

The other freshmen, Williams and Cobbs, have been younger versions of Carter and Bostick to this point -- a leaper in Williams and a guard better suited to the Horizon League in Cobbs.

One more item: Smith is now being offered the loss of Nolen as the latest excuse for what's so far a flop of a season. In reality, Nolen was a surprising asset as a freshman, and surprisingly unimproved two years later.

That has been a too familiar theme with Smith's 2009-10 roster. For close to $2 million annually, Tubby's employers have a right to see a level of improvement in the athletes that offers no reminders of Coach Monson.

Patrick Reusse can be heard 5:30-9 a.m. weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. • preusse@startribune.com

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