Since arriving at Minnesota in 2007 amid high expectations, Tubby Smith often has seemed cranky, chafing when talking about a variety of talented head cases, defections, close losses, and, of course, the need for a new practice facility.
Tuesday night, when Smith stopped to talk outside the Gophers' locker room, he sounded happier and more heartened than the typical big-conference coach who had dispensed with a small school. His good mood is justified.
Smith is coaching the best team he's had at Minnesota, a team that he finds as likable to watch as it is to tutor. So after the Gophers beat South Dakota State, 88-64, he found himself musing cheerfully about Andre and Austin Hollins, two simpatico guards who might be changing the tenor of Smith's tenure.
"They both have a unique style of play,'' Smith said. "Austin is very lanky and very athletic, but Andre's pretty athletic also. We knew they were talented enough to play here, but I've been very pleased with the type of people they are, more than players.
"They're two of the best men I've ever had the good fortune to coach. That makes it a lot more fun, because you know those guys are going to do the right things in the class room and off the court. And they have a passion for the game. That makes it fun to coach them.''
Smith shared a story about the two, who grew up in Tennessee.
"They played against each other in AAU, in seventh and eighth grade,'' Smith said. "Both wore No. 20 and had 'A. Hollins' on their back. That's how we recruited them. We thought they were related.
"The stars are sort of aligned for them to play together.''
They play together well, two smart, unselfish guards who hit big shots and attack opponents defensively.
Tuesday night, they didn't have much competition. Jackrabbits star Nate Wolters, the St. Cloud Tech alum, didn't play after testing his sore ankle before the game. That the 14th-ranked Gophers jumped to an early lead spoke to Smith of defensive intensity and focus.
"I've got a lot of respect for South Dakota State,'' Smith said. "But I've got a lot of respect for our players and the way they conducted themselves tonight, as far as being disciplined. Sometimes when you hear the best player on the opposing team isn't there. ... I was glad to see that our guys stayed focused and came out and weren't distracted by that.
"Andre Hollins got us off to a good start, knocking down big shots. We've been defending people extremely well.''
The Gophers jumped to a 48-24 halftime lead as Andre Hollins made six of seven three-pointers.
While South Dakota State without Wolters was unable to test the Gophers, this game did nothing to change the arc of their season. They have dominated inferior competition and performed well against quality competition. Their only loss is to an excellent Duke team.
They are 3-1 against major-conference opponents. They have defeated each of their lesser opponents by at least 24 points. That's a testament to their depth and defensive intensity. They don't let lesser teams breathe.
"We've got a lot of depth right now,'' Smith said. "That's the key. We don't have much of a drop-off. The competition in practice is making each guy better.''
Smith glanced at his stat sheet.
"We had 21 assists,'' he said. "That's pretty impressive, 33 field goals on 21 assists. I like the unselfishness we play with. Trevor Mbakwe threw one out of the post for an assist. When I see our big guys throwing the ball out like that, that makes a difference.''
In less than four weeks, Smith will take Minnesota into his seventh Big Ten season, beginning with Michigan State on New Year's Eve in The Barn.
The Big Ten is thick with ranked teams. Smith never has faced a tougher conference schedule since he arrived at Minnesota.
He sounds happy to take his chances with this smart, unselfish bunch of players.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org