Chip Scoggins: Symptoms say U hoops needs another rebirth

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 7, 2012 - 8:12 AM

Gophers fans should expect more than what they have seen from Tubby Smith's team.

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Gophers coach Tubby Smith gave his team some directions earlier in the season at Williams Arena.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Tubby Smith's arrival in March 2007 generated pomp and circumstance, wonderment over Joel Maturi's ability to engineer a coaching coup of this scope and visions of a rebirth in Gophers basketball.

Armed with a national championship and glittery résumé, Smith did nothing to dissuade that unbridled enthusiasm.

"People who know college basketball know that there's a lot of potential here," Smith said on his first day on the job. "Now I get to be the guy who can kind of bring some new life, new energy to the program. I do think that it has unlimited potential."

Anyone still feel that way?

Five years into Smith's tenure, the more relevant questions are, where is his program headed and is he the right person to lead it?

The Gophers fell to 0-3 in the Big Ten after a 64-62 loss to Iowa at The Barn on Wednesday. They are 1-13 against conference opponents since last January, 32-43 overall in the Big Ten in Smith's tenure.

The Gophers have not won an NCAA tournament game in two appearances under Smith, and barring a major turnaround, the team likely will miss the tournament for a second consecutive season with players that he recruited.

Attendance at Williams Arena is dwindling a season before the school implements a preferred seating plan that will cost fans as much as $400 extra on top of their tickets.

Does this constitute progress?

Gophers fans should expect more than this, considering Smith's track record and the fact this is his fifth season on a contract that pays him around $2 million annually.

The school and Smith have failed to reach an agreement on an extension, and maybe that's not the worst thing. Smith has two seasons remaining on his deal. Why not let this play out and see if he can turn things around, get the program moving in the right direction and create some of that life and energy he promised?

If he can't, the school needs to assess the long-term future of the program.

This is not a call for a coaching change necessarily. The school already learned in the case of Glen Mason that change for the sake of change can backfire if you don't hire the right person.

It's just that more was expected by now, both in terms of his recruiting and on-court success.

No one denies that Smith put the program on better footing after the mess created by Dan Monson. Smith brought instant credibility, structure and general competence.

But everything about the program has felt disjointed in recent years.

Whether it's transfers, injuries, chemistry problems, the way Smith uses certain players, internal tension about the lack of a practice facility ... something always stunts any hope for meaningful progress.

Some of that is out of Smith's control, of course. Losing Trevor Mbakwe to a season-ending knee injury is not a minor setback. But it shouldn't be a death knell this far into his tenure, either.

That was the initial perception however, largely because Smith's recruiting leaves much to be desired, which is strange considering his national profile. His roster lacks true difference-makers, or at least enough of them.

Smith loyalists argue that a state-of-the-art practice facility would open new doors in recruiting. That is true, to a point. To borrow Mason's line about an on-campus football stadium, a practice facility for basketball is a need, not a want.

Sure, Williams Arena has history and charm, but it's a tough sell to recruits. That's a fact, but it shouldn't be an excuse trotted out after every loss.

A practice facility alone isn't a cure-all. The Gophers have won without one. To suggest it can't be done again is an attempt to deflect attention from other problems. And, frankly, fans are growing tired of excuses.

Smith's offense is a plodding mess, his mass substitution patterns are odd and his insistence on playing Blake Hoffarber at the point last season reeked of stubbornness.

Maybe Smith needs to shake up his staff, get a fresh perspective, perhaps hire a top-notch recruiter. Do something to breathe life into this operation.

Smith talked enthusiastically about this team before the season. He sounded genuinely excited about its potential and emotionally recharged after last season's meltdown and cancer scare.

A 12-1 record in the non-conference was encouraging, but the schedule was conducive for a fast start. They didn't play a true road game until the Big Ten opener.

Now instead of optimism, their first 0-3 league start in six seasons has fueled a growing sense of frustration among fans over the direction of things. There is an uneasiness in Dinkytown -- a stark contrast to how things felt upon Tubby's arrival.

One couldn't help but wonder back then where this program would be after Smith had a few years on the job.

This isn't it.

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com

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