From my Jan. 26 blog:
There is an unwritten rule in college basketball: When your favorite team beats an opponent that is not in the Top-25, not in the top-five in its conference, has no historical relevance, or is not your bitter rival, you don’t rush the floor. Nevertheless, when the Indiana Hoosiers beat the Gophers two Sundays ago, we saw the Hoosiers faithful storm the court. Such debauchery should be reserved for a special win.
In the name of the "Green Man" (where has he been this year?), U of M students have rushing-the-court privileges this Wednesday when the Gophers take on No. 3 Purdue with a chance to knock off a top-five team at "The Barn" for the first time since February 12, 1992. That Clem Haskins-led Gopher team beat Bobby Knight's No. 4 Indiana Hoosiers 71-67. You have to go back to January 26, 1989, when the Gophers beat No. 1 Illinois 69-62 to find a win over a top-three team.
Purdue comes in riding a nine-game winning steak, with Big Ten road wins at Michigan State, Ohio State, and Illinois. They also have non-conference wins over West Virginia, Tennessee, Wake Forest, and at Alabama. They are Final Four-caliber, and are one of the few teams legitimately in the national championship conversation.
On Saturday, they beat a good Illinois team with their two best players -- JaJuan Johnson and Robbie Hummel -- shooting a combined 5-for-23 from the field. They consistently find different ways to win without having any real stars.
Gophers head coach Tubby Smith has done the same in years past, getting his teams to the NCAA tournament in 15 of the last 16 years. He has won at least 20 games in 16 consecutive seasons. Nevertheless, his genius tendencies haven't been on display enough almost three years into his tenure.
It's time for that to change on Wednesday night. A win and they have a chance at an at-large NCAA tournament bid. Right now, they would not be in, even after an impressive week.
The Gophers got their best win of the season last Wednesday versus No. 14 Wisconsin. Against the Badgers, Smith's 3-2 zone worked wonderfully. Then on Saturday night, they got their most decisive Big Ten win in hammering Indiana by 23 points. It is hard to quantify, but however you measure mojo, the Gophers have it at perhaps their highest level of the season. Maybe it’s the shaved heads, but watching the last two games, I can't help but wonder how they lost at Indiana or at home to Michigan.
Smith complained after the Michigan loss that his team didn't do the little things like taking charges, diving for loose balls, etc. Whatever he has said since then has worked. Now, Tubby’s magic is rearing its head.
In the Gophers' favor Wednesday is homecourt advantage -- the Gophers are 13-2 at Williams Arena. There are few places tougher to win at than "The Barn" when it's rockin', and it most assuredly will be on Wednesday. In addition to the menacing crowd, Purdue could possibly be looking ahead to its matchup with Michigan State next Sunday. That game will likely decide the Big Ten title.
In many ways, Wednesday will ultimately decide the Gophers' postseason fate. A loss and the only way they avoid the NIT is to win the Big Ten tournament. Smith, in discussing Purdue to the Big Ten Network, stated "We are trying to get to that level."
A win Wednesday offers significant hope that eventually they will.
"We haven't really stepped up in big games. That's why you go out and recruit better players. And hopefully, we'll get that in the future."
That was Gophers head coach Tubby Smith, following his team's defeat to a 12-loss Michigan team at "The Barn" on Thursday.
In journalism, a profession in which we often wonder if people are being truthful, Smith’s honesty is welcomed. And he is right. Not even John Wooden could win with the collection of “talent” on this year’s Gophers squad. But whose fault is that? I have yet to hear Smith accept responsibility.
Even without Royce White and Trevor Mbakwe, at the start of the season, the Gophers had their top-nine scorers back from last year’s NCAA tournament team. And this year’s schedule is easier (they don't play Wisconsin or Illinois twice plus the non-conference portion was laughable). Unless they win out – which has about the same chance of happening as Gophers football coach Tim Brewster agreeing to do a radio interview with Patrick Reusse on ESPN 1500 -- they will be NIT bound. There could be a great game at "The Barn" in mid-March: North Carolina, the defending champs, versus the Gophers.
Al Nolen is clearly missed -- way more than anyone could have guessed -- but aren't Smith and his staff supposed to make sure that Nolen is showing up for class and putting in the necessary effort?
Unfortunately, a better recruiting class is not coming in next year. The Gophers have verbal commitments from guard Austin Hollins and center Elliott Eliason. The experts view both as decent players, but certainly not program-changers. They are in on Devoe Joseph's brother, Cory, a McDonald's All-American, but so are Texas, Villanova, and UConn. Joseph’s best friend is on his way to Texas, so it is difficult envisioning him as a Gopher. Not a surprise because, if you talk to any diehard Kentucky fan, they will tell you that Smith is not known for recruiting.
Any elite high school player can turn on a Gopher game and see that Smith makes far too many substitutions. Great players likely want to be guaranteed at least 33 minutes per game. They also want to see good offensive flow. The Gophers generally score points as a result of their pressure defense. They struggle in half-court sets. Movement is limited compared to most teams. Far too often, there seems to be mass confusion until Lawrence Westbrook tries to beat his guy one-on-one as the shot clock winds down.
As we enter the final seven regular season games of Smith's third-year, player development does not appear to be a real strength. Is he becoming Don Lucia-like? A case can be made that Joseph, Westbrook, Ralph Sampson III, Colton Iverson, Devron Bostick, and Paul Carter all have failed to improve this season.
As I have previously mentioned, Smith should be in the Hall of Fame right now, but will his iconic touch ever reach the Gophers?
Smith's name came up last offseason for the Virginia and Arizona jobs. Presumably, his name will come up again this year for openings in the ACC (think North Carolina State) and SEC. Will Smith entertain the thought of leaving? Could he view the Wolfpack job as far less of a dire situation than the Gophers' job?
There are far more questions than answers right now surrounding what is at many times the third-most popular team in town.
There is an unwritten rule in college basketball: When your favorite team beats an opponent that is not in the Top-25, not in the top-five in its conference, has no historical relevance, or is not your bitter rival, you don’t rush the floor.
Nevertheless, when the Indiana Hoosiers beat the Gophers two Sundays ago, we saw the Hoosiers faithful storm the court. Such debauchery should be reserved for a special win. Beating the Gophers does not qualify.
So when will beating the Gophers matter?
Head coach Tubby Smith will deservedly enter the Hall of Fame one day. He won a national championship in his first year at Kentucky. He is one of just six coaches who have guided four schools to the NCAA tournament. Eight more wins this season and he'll have his 17th consecutive 20-win season, which is the longest active streak. Smith also had three Sweet 16 appearances in four seasons at Tulsa and Georgia.
Smith has been so good at what he does that I can’t help but wonder when his iconic touch will translate to my alma mater.
Losing Royce White and Trevor Mbakwe to suspension hurts. White is a natural scorer and a gifted rebounder, two areas in which the Gophers need help. And the way Ralph Sampson and Colton Iverson are playing, Mbakwe would play 25-30 minutes per game and likely lead the team in rebounding.
Mbakwe, who is sidelined until his felony assault case in Miami is resolved, will very likely redshirt this year. In November, athletic director Joel Maturi told the Star Tribune "I'd be surprised" if Mbakwe were found guilty. I wonder, if Maturi has done his homework in this matter and truly feels this way, why not let him play now?
Of the Gophers currently playing, have Sampson III, Iverson, Paul Carter, or Devron Bostick shown any improvement? Has Carter been given a fair shot?
Lawrence Westbrook on a good team would be featured as a spark-plug sixth man, but on the Gophers he has to be "The Man."
I have questions about Tubby’s ability to coach a productive half-court offense. After blowing a double-digit lead, the last possession against Michigan State on Saturday was a failure. They were down one, yet the final shot appeared to be for Blake Hoffarber from 23-feet. When that broke down, Westbrook went one-on-one, something that floundered for a seventh time in that game. An option might have been Sampson III on the low block, but Westbrook had no thoughts of giving that ball up.
Tuesday night against Northwestern, Hoffarber, like he has so many previous times this season at "The Barn," delivered. Oh by the way, he was a Dan Monson recruit.
Yes, the Gophers are second in the Big Ten in scoring, but that is a misleading statistic when you consider their soft non-conference schedule and propensity to score off defensive pressure.
Landing top-10 recruit Cory Joseph -- Devoe's brother -- would help immensely, but he might end up at Villanova or Texas. The two commitments Tubby has garnered -- guard Austin Hollins and center Elliot Eliason -- are not considered to be significant.
Further, two of the team's three most important players -- Damian Johnson and Westbrook -- are seniors. If the team does not make a deep run this year, when will they?