Tubby Smith, seven months removed from the worst season of his coaching career, joked with team officials and playfully teased reporters throughout the Gophers men's basketball team's media day on Thursday at Williams Arena.
He was showing off a whimsy that had quickly evaporated as a 16-4 Gophers squad lost 10 of 11 games to end the 2010-11 season. As the Gophers prepare for their first official practice at an "All-Star" event starting at 7 p.m. Friday at Williams Arena, Smith is displaying an optimistic outlook for the season, even though he leads one of the youngest teams in the Big Ten.
"I would have never dreamed at 16-4 that we wouldn't win but one more game. Who can forecast that?" he said.
Few would have, particularly in 2007 -- when Smith took over Gophers men's basketball and received a hero's welcome.
A discouraged fan base that had suffered through Dan Monson's lukewarm tenure and the scandalous conclusion of Clem Haskins' term embraced a man who had won a national title at Kentucky in 1998 and had never been involved in the kind of drama that embarrassed the Gophers program in the late 1990s.
Smith signed a seven-year deal worth $1.8 million per year, and fans predicted a return to national relevance. As Year 5 of the Smith Era begins, the Gophers have failed to take off the way some anticipated. They have earned two NCAA tournament bids in Smith's first four years, but transfers and legal trouble sometimes overshadowed those triumphs.
Smith's backers say the coach simply encountered a string of bad luck that proved to be a crucial setback for a program on the rise. Smith acknowledged Thursday that being diagnosed with prostate cancer -- he had surgery to remove the cancer earlier this year -- might have affected him more than he realized at the time.
"I never felt like I was depressed or it affected my coaching or decision-making. But when I look back on it, I probably wasn't as intense, I think, as I had been," he said.
Last year's Gophers achieved a top-15 ranking, but losing point guards Al Nolen (season-ending injury) and Devoe Joseph (midseason transfer) scuttled their momentum.
"It was very likely that we would have made the NCAA tournament had we had a true point guard," athletic director Joel Maturi said.
Smith's fifth year doesn't figure to be make-or-break for him. But Smith admits that he is motivated to restore the mojo that last season's struggles ultimately soured.
Excited for young squad
Smith has five scholarship players who have never competed at the Division I level and two others who have never played Big Ten basketball. Yet, he seems as excited about the upcoming season as he's ever been during his tenure with the Gophers.
Smith said freshman Andre Hollins, a strong candidate to be the starting point guard, has the "total package." He praised the offseason work ethic of Hollins and fellow underclassmen Joe Coleman, Chip Armelin, Austin Hollins and Elliott Eliason. And he credited veterans Trevor Mbakwe, Ralph Sampson III and Rodney Williams with taking the initiative to improve.
"I'm really fired up about this group because I think we have the right people on the bus in the right seats, so I feel the pendulum starting to make its move in the right direction," he said.
Williams, who attended summer camps organized by NBA stars Kevin Durant and LeBron James, said the team put in the work to succeed.
"From what I'm seeing from everybody, I think we're ready to compete with the best," he said. "Everybody's been working hard all summer."
But potholes have flattened the team's expectations in the past. Smith said he understands the criticism last year's finish fueled because he shared fans' concerns.
"I'm probably the leader of the frustrated," he said. "I think people saw that. I think people saw that we had the people in places, things in places. Nothing you can do about injuries. There really isn't."
Said former Gophers star Trent Tucker: "I think [Smith has] done a very good job. Any circumstances beyond your control can set any team back."
But the injury explanation didn't fly for some, who publicly criticized Smith for the downturn. Until that juncture, Smith had managed to escape that level of scrutiny.
"That goes with the territory," said booster and former player Paul Presthus. "You're highly compensated and you know the expectations that come along [with the job] and ... I don't think Tubby met his expectations."
Smith has had problems maintaining continuity within his roster. Five players have voluntarily left the program since 2010. Smith said he tried to hold on to players who ultimately decided to leave and that he was perplexed by the decisions of Colton Iverson and Devoe Joseph to transfer last year.
"You hate to have to let players go, have a guy quit," Smith said. "Even though it happened, that's the worst thing any coach goes through because you bring guys in, you work your [butt] off to recruitthem."
The criticism and his cancer diagnosis created a disruptive mix for the coach. Smith said the latter put his coaching career into perspective.
"Sometimes that can be a humbling thing to say, 'You know what, Tubby? You've had it pretty good for a long time and maybe you need to take heed and show some more appreciation, show more passion, maybe, to get the job done,'" he said. "Not that it was lacking, but maybe that was a wake-up call because sometimes you can get caught in the rut. You're in the business, this is my 39th year. All of a sudden you go, 'I better get energized.' You can get the wind knocked out of you. It's like taking a blow when you hear the word cancer."
Smith's supporters expect a better year in part because they're hoping that the pitfalls that derailed the program in 2009-10 and 2010-11 won't become roadblocks in 2011-12.
"I'm glad he's our coach" Maturi said. "I expect him to finish his career here. ... You remember what the Barn was like five years ago. I think that's changed almost immediately [with Smith]."
The fifth-year coach is not on the hot seat, although in a tougher climate -- like his old league, the Southeastern Conference -- he might be entering the season with less security. Smith said he believes he has the roster to achieve success and maintain it. As far as expectations go, Smith said he doesn't have many. He said he just wants to push this young group to its potential and hopefully vie for a slot in the NCAA tournament.
"I think our opportunity has been good every year to get to the NCAA [tournament] ... but that's where we plan on being," he said.
As every follower of this program knows, however, sometimes plans change.