Tubby picks on another senior to be a scapegoat

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 5, 2012 - 12:21 AM

When the Gophers lose, the coach criticizes some players who can't change their games.

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Gophers men's basketball coach Tubby Smith

Tubby Smith's ballclub had not won a Big Ten game since it went to Iowa City on Feb. 13 and cruised to a 62-45 victory. On Wednesday night, 325 days since that victory, Iowa came to Williams Arena for a visit in which Tubby's athletes had the task of proving this was not another conference campaign headed for the doldrums.

The Gophers had opened Big Ten play with narrow losses at Illinois and at Michigan.

The expectation was the Gophers would be invigorated by a return to The Barn, where they were 10-0 in nonconference games -- mostly vs. suspect competition, but still 10-0.

There were decades when Ralph Miller, Lute Olson, George Raveling and Tom Davis brought the Hawkeyes to Minneapolis and the cheer "Let's Go Hawks" would roll down incessantly from the upper reaches of The Barn.

Those days were long gone, when Steve Alford turned this proud program in the wrong direction, and then Todd Lickliter turned Iowa basketball into a disgrace.

Lickliter was fired in 2010, with four years left on a seven-year contract, and the Hawkeyes hired Fran McCaffrey from Siena. Iowa was 11-20 in 2010-11, giving it a fourth consecutive losing season for the first time in school history.

On Saturday, the Hawkeyes came out of Wisconsin with a shocking 72-65 victory -- primarily because the Badgers went 3-for-28 from behind the three-point line.

This Big Ten home opener for the Gophers started with Iowa playing what came to be known as "Lickliter ball" to grateful opponents. The Hawkeyes were missing from all distances, getting beat off the dribble, and the Gophers led 32-21 when McCaffrey called an emergency timeout with 5:06 left in the first half.

It wouldn't be fair to say Williams Arena was rocking, because that doesn't really happen these days, but the announced crowd of 12,018 was satisfied -- with the exception of the occasional hoots aimed at Ralph Sampson III, the senior center.

The Hawkeyes went to a zone, not McCaffrey's preferred defense, but he had to do something.

The Gophers looked at the new defense as if they had been handed a pop quiz in calculus, and didn't score the rest of the half. Iowa closed with 10 in a row, and it was 32-31 at halftime.

The second half mostly belonged to Iowa -- until it missed six free throws in the final 39 seconds. The Gophers had a chance to tie before the buzzer, when Maverick Ahanmisi failed to twist in a layup.

Hawks 64, Gophers 62.

Last winter, when things turned ugly, Smith started sending arrows in the direction of Blake Hoffarber, a senior playing out of position at point guard.

Suddenly, the coach was saying that Hoffarber could not settle for jump shots but had to be more aggressive in taking the ball toward the basket. Interesting theory ... since Hoffarber's game for 3 1/2 seasons had been firing from distance with a lightning-fast trigger.

The 6-11 Sampson has been a target for The Barn's spectators for most of his time here. The fans have wanted to see power and aggression from Ralph the Third, even as it became clear his game was shooting 17-foot jumpers, playing a high-low game with the now-injured Trevor Mbakwe and blocking shots.

Moving his feet and handling the ball in traffic always have been problems for big Ralph, and they got him in trouble again Wednesday. He had six turnovers, four rebounds and missed a lone free throw in a 12-point night.

There was enough disappointment in this loss that Tubby decided to go back to slinging arrows. Two days earlier, he had offered praise for Sampson, but now he was trying to explain another loss and said of Ralph the Third:

"He has to be stronger with the ball. He has to go strong to the basket and not settle for jumpers."

Sampson has a better chance to make a jumper than to go strong through traffic to get a basket, but this was another gut-wrenching loss and Tubby needed a Hoffarber for a new winter.

When you're a coach with a big reputation and a big contract, everything is fair game -- including questioning a player who can't seem to change his game halfway through a senior season.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. preusse@startribune.com

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