Last year, the Gophers men's basketball team suffered one of the worst tumbles in Division I. It lost 10 of its last 11 games and didn't earn an invitation to the NIT. Coach Tubby Smith sat down with Star Tribune beat reporter Myron P. Medcalf last week to discuss the challenges he faced in the 2010-11 campaign and other issues crucial to the program, including the injuries and departures that affected the season.
Q How often do you replay last year's finish in your mind?
A I need to stop doing that because I need to focus on the here and now and the future. There's nothing to be gained. ... You're constantly trying to evaluate what happened -- what could we have done differently? -- that type of thing. I'm sure there's something we could've done differently. And I'm sure a lot of people had a lot of answers when it was over with. Hindsight is always better, hindsight is 20/20. You can see it in a different perspective. Looking back on it, I probably should've played smaller, even though we went bigger and we did score and we won a couple of games with a big lineup. After we used it that first time against Northwestern [Jan. 26] here, then we went on the road to Purdue [Jan. 29] and we got beat there with the big lineup. We got beat by Indiana [Feb. 2]. ... I think what happened during that stretch was it was a false sense of accomplishment. We moved Rodney [Williams] to the shooting guard, we moved Blake [Hoffarber] to the point, we moved Ralph [Sampson III] to the 3, Colton [Iverson] came into the lineup at the 5, but we lost a lot of scoring, a lot of offense. We just couldn't score, couldn't score inside or outside.
Q How much blame do you accept for last year's struggles?
A It's always the coach's fault, everybody knows that. Parents know it, players know it, writers know it, everybody. It's Coach's fault. I accept that. That's who I am. But I know one thing, I wasn't out there shooting a bad .... I haven't made a basket, I haven't scored a basket since 1973 that was meaningful. So everybody I put on the court I expect them to be able to play and adapt and adjust. When that doesn't happen, I've got to look at that and say well, 'Do we have the right personnel? Are those guys capable of doing it?' And when you have injuries and things like that, defections. Our most significant injury -- obviously, Al [Nolen] was our most significant -- but the one to Mo [Walker], I thought that hurt us as much as anything because he was a guy that was really coming on. Our best passer as a big man, he was a very good free-throw shooter, and that's something that we weren't very good at in the post. We just weren't very good passers, and we weren't good free-throw shooters.
Q After four years, are you content with the progress you've made at the University of Minnesota?
A You're never content unless you're winning the last game of the year. I don't think there's a content coach in America other than [UConn's] Jim Calhoun in Division I basketball. ... Outside of that you better not be content. You won't last long in this business. So you got to improve every day and every minute. I know that we've got a lot to improve on. Obviously, we took a step back, not this year but even last year with Royce White, Trevor Mbakwe not being able to [play]. ... But I thought we had surpassed that and overcame some of that, and we had. We were 16-4. So, there's no denying that. A lot of people thought we were one of the top 20 teams in the country at that time. And we were.
Q Do you think you've endured unfair criticism this year?
A No. We were 1-10 [in our last 11 games]. It's what you expect. But I hope people understand, it's not like we had all of our people here. So I would hope that people are smart enough to understand that or at least educated enough to understand that. Then again, a lot of people aren't. ... Most of them don't come to games, most of them don't even know that we lost two players to injuries and one that left. Most people don't know that. And they don't really care, to be honest with you. But I think the real Gopher fan saw what we lacked, so they should be concerned. So criticism is going to be there. That's why you concentrate on getting better. Because there's nobody more critical than we are.
Q You called out specific players last season when things weren't going well. Do you have any regrets about taking that approach?
A Well, I think I've said what I wanted to say. I said maybe players didn't execute certain things. ... I said it all the time, I'm not usually specific about it. But I thought maybe hey, maybe they need to know. I think it worked. It worked for me. ... [Observers are] seeing it, so why not just say it. Blake [Hoffarber] has had an outstanding career here, and that's what I was pointing out. He was making, probably, the biggest transition of anybody after fours years at shooting guard. Done is done, once I do it. I was hoping it would be a motivating factor.
Q You've been the subject of numerous coaching searches and rumors, but you've decided to stay. What's stopped you from leaving the University of Minnesota?
A We think we have the right situation, right fit for me at this point and time in my life. And that's why I came here. Nothing has changed about that.
Q You've lost five guys since last February. Could you have done anything differently to prevent those departures?
A Sometimes it's a mutual agreement. Sometimes they didn't get enough playing time. You take a guy like Justin Cobbs. A guy like Paul Carter, he left for a different type reason. I would have loved for him to stay here, but hopefully what they did improved their [status]. I don't think it hurt us, our status. What hurt us was injuries this year, not the defections or the departure of people. Sometimes, it's addition by subtraction. And I thought that we were well positioned because of subtraction, being 16-4. And that's not to say the loss of Royce White, if they'd stayed, wouldn't have made us better, I'm not saying that, but we did what we were supposed to do. We continued on. As I tell players, the program is going to go on with or without you. You either accept that Coach Smith loves me, wants me here and I'm playing you ... but you want more, everybody wants more.
You take Colton [Iverson]. He played 15 minutes the year before. He played 18-19 minutes this year. It wasn't like he got less minutes. He did less with more. That's all I can say. And we did less with him doing more. I rest my case. And hopefully, they'll see that. We were pretty good with or without Devoe Joseph. And we'll be good without him again. That's life. So I appreciate that when they come in, and I tell them that when I recruit them. Hey, we want you here. We're recruiting you because we have a need for you. There's going to be ups and downs, there's going to be highs and lows. There's going to be guys that fight through it and guys that can't. That's how I look at it. That's sports. That's winning and losing. And hopefully, we're teaching them life values: when you commit to something, you stick to it. But that's not always the case.
Myron P. Medcalf • email@example.com