Souhan: If Tubby can't turn this around, it's time to get Smart

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 11, 2013 - 9:37 AM

If the Gophers basketball coach can't drag his most talented team back to .500 and make his program presentable for the NCAA tournament selectors, athletic director Norwood Teague should buy him out and lure VCU coach Shaka Smart to The Barn.

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Minnesota Gophers vs. Illinois. Illinois won 57-53. Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith showed his exasperation when Illinois went up by four points with less than a minute to play.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Now we know why Tubby Smith has been giving so much playing time to his reserves. You need to develop a bench if you're going to make a run in the NIT.

The Gophers didn't just lose to Illinois 57-53 on Sunday night at The Barn. They earned a loss accompanied by a high degree of difficulty.

They lost at home to a team they beat on the road by 17 points a month earlier.

They lost at home after taking a 26-14 lead.

They lost at home against a team that had no answer for their inside players, as the Gophers outrebounded the Illini 39-26.

They lost for the sixth time in eight games, dropping to 5-6 in the conference and leaving Smith's Big Ten record in February at 3-15 the past three years.

After the game, someone threw the "snowball" metaphor at center Elliott Eliason. "I prefer the quicksand analogy," he said.

This is Smith's best team at Minnesota. These are his recruits. Once again, Smith's team is growing more confused and ineffective as the season progresses, and he's being outcoached by almost everyone in the conference.

Smith's best team is snowballing or, as Eliason would have it, sinking of its own weight, meaning a team that we expected to play NCAA tournament games might not make it to the tourney at all.

"It's just another blown opportunity for us," Smith said.

The timing of Smith's latest ugly loss is interesting. Last year, Illinois pursued Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart. He turned down the job. Smart was hired at VCU as a 32-year-old, in a piece of managerial brilliance, by newish Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague.

Smith has a new, restructured contract that calls for a $2.5 million buyout. The way Smith has turned off the quintessential Gophers fans, that number is starting to look like a bargain.

Smith has seven regular-season Big Ten conference games remaining this season. Five of them look winnable. If he can't drag his most talented team back to .500 and make his program presentable for the NCAA tournament selectors, Teague should buy him out and lure Smart to The Barn.

Smith likes to blame his players for his recurring slumps, but when all of your players regress, during the season and during their careers, it's a coaching problem.

A team that a month ago was receiving praise for intelligence and cohesion now spends much of every game looking at each other with palms raised, basketball sign language for "Why did you do that?"

Asked what's wrong with his team, Smith contradicts himself so rapidly that it's easy to see why his players are confused. He wants them to run, but be careful with the ball.

"Same issues we've had before, as far as taking care of the basketball," he said. "It's a real concern. I keep talking about it and we work on it. ... In games like this you have to execute down the stretch and today we didn't. ... We correct one area and then today we turned it over in the post a lot. You just can't do that."

At Minnesota, nothing gets better under Smith. Not the players. Not the decision-making. Not the style of play.

Last year's team didn't become promising until Andre and Austin Hollins began pushing the tempo and making decisions on the fly. This year, they too often play as if they're acting in a remake of "Speed" and if they break a certain speed limit, their shoes will burst into flames.

Teague is too smooth to let on whether he's thinking about Smart, but he should be and probably is. Gophers football might be allowed to follow a bake-from-scratch recipe, but Gophers basketball is one good hire away from turning out NCAA tournament teams and making Williams Arena one of the best entertainment venues in the Twin Cities.

That's one good hire, Mr. Teague. We'll make it easy on you. You don't even need to hire a search firm or get on a plane. Just re-dial "Shaka" this April, and we'll pretend it was an original idea.

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. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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