The Gophers basketball team was young and had plenty of injuries, but the coach predicts better things ahead.
With a disappointing Gophers men's basketball season nearing the end, I decided to do a Q and A with coach Tubby Smith, who is dealing with a second consecutive year of fewer than 20 victories -- a rarity in his long career.
Q: You lost four games by five points or fewer and lost another game in overtime. Have you ever had a year like that?
A: I've never had a year like this or a year like we had last year; it's been two years in a row. Up until last year we won 20 games for 17 straight years, so no, this is just, hopefully it's just a thing that we're going through at this point in time because we have some quality people on our team, some talented people.
I don't think I've had more injuries. So we're going to look at what our conditioning program has been like, just why we're having so many. I mean we've had more turned ankles this year. Even as we speak we have an issue with Julian Welch, he can't play the last two or three games -- he's played but he's hobbled around. He may not play again this year because he has such a groin strain or hip [injury].
Q: You were talking about "urban problems" having something to do with the poor record this year. What exactly do you mean by that?
A: I think living in a city where there's so many things going on and a big university where it's so huge, and in a pro town, that's what I meant. [The players] are looked upon as if they're grown men that are pro players and making a salary, and that's not the case.
I never lived in a city of this size where you had all the pro teams and the pro mentality, but that's part of it. And that's part of it, I think that's the unique part, I think that's why we do get the players we get. That's a great recruiting tool for us, as well, we sell that. We live in a great metropolitan area, one of the best cities. If you get your education here and get your degree, we have more Fortune 500 companies here. You can go see the Twins, the Timberwolves, the Vikings, the Wild, on and on and on. Don't get me wrong, but it's also a devil in disguise sometimes if you're not careful.
Q: Can you win with this group plus the two recruits?
A: Oh yeah, we can win. We'll be better because a kid like [injured sophomore forward] Mo Walker will be back. Elliott Eliason will be back and he'll be healthy. We have Andre Ingram back and he'll be healthy, because you know he had surgery last summer on that hip impingement. ... I think [recruit] Charles Buggs gives us another big player. If we have to, we're looking at some players now, if we have to recruit another big man just for insurance sake, we might have to do that as well.
We can win with this group. I think guys like Oto [Osenieks], who's a freshman, he'll be a sophomore next year, Elliott Eliason will be a sophomore next year, Andre Hollins will be a sophomore. We're the youngest team in the league, and when you lose a senior, a fifth-year senior like Trevor Mbakwe, it just makes all the difference in the world.
Q: Did you expect more from Ralph Sampson III, who was recruited by a lot of big-time schools?
A: Ralph has had a very consistent year. He's played, I don't know if he's played to his potential, but he's given us what he's been able to give us and he's been one of the most consistent guys since he's been here. The rebounding has been something that we've struggled with.
Q: Have you had a chance to see your two recruits for next year? What do you think of them?
A: Well Charles Buggs, he's at Hargrave Military Academy [in Chatham, Va.]. I went down to see him last week and [he] played extremely well. He's about 6-7, 6-8, he's thin but he's a kid that really knows how to play. His team is undefeated.
The other young man from Rice Lake, Wisconsin, Wally Ellenson, is having an outstanding year. He plays on a team with two of his brothers and I know they're going into the state playoffs over there.
Q: Does the team lack shooters?
A: I was hoping [with the] guys that we had, shooters in our lineup, that we would be a better shooting team, but we just have struggled shooting the ball again. Oto Osenieks is a guy we expected to shoot the ball better, but we had to play him inside because of the loss of our post players.
You lose a guy like Trevor Mbakwe and now you're down a post man. Or you look up and someone like Andre Ingram has had a history with his hip and we're down bigs. So Oto really hasn't had a chance to get comfortable in our offense playing outside.
But you're asking about our players that are coming in, our recruits, Wally Ellenson will be a true outside shooter, that's what he does well.
Q: Will the fact that Mbawke was suspended for a season with personal problems in Miami have an effect on him getting a sixth year of eligibility?
A: I don't know about that. I hope, but I know at that time decisions are made, we were going through a lot of issues at that time. I don't want to rehash them. But there was more than just Trevor Mbakwe. We were dealing with other things.
I think he should. If the NCAA is true to their word and what their mission is and being student-friendly, then I think he'll be back next year.
Q: You played well against Wisconsin and Michigan State, maybe you have a chance in the [Big Ten] tournament.
A: We do have a chance, don't get me wrong. You mentioned the games earlier where we've been close in every game. The only games we didn't give ourselves a chance to win was Michigan State away, I thought the Ohio State game here, and the Indiana game here. Those three games we didn't play well at all, but even in the Ohio State game we made a run, got it back to seven, eight twice, after being down 21. We did the same thing to Michigan State, came back up there.
In all the games we lost there were droughts and stretches that we went through, that's what we have to eliminate. [We need] where you have that guy that you can throw the ball to [and who] will make a play for you. I think Andre Hollins is coming around and now he's healthy and he's learning to play defense better, so I think he can make a big difference. He'll be the difference-maker if we do well in the Big Ten tournament.
Q: How important is a practice facility?
A: Oh, it's critical. I was watching the Nebraska/Iowa game last night and that's all the commentators talked about was how important it was for Nebraska to have that type of facility to recruit athletes. ... It's something that we hope, and we expected to have by now, and unfortunately we haven't and we have to keep working and we will get it.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. • firstname.lastname@example.org
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