Run by Gophers aids Smith's job security

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 22, 2012 - 10:31 PM

Reaching the NIT semifinals makes it more likely the coach will get his two-year contract extension.

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Gophers basketball coach Tubby Smith

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The fact that the Gophers have won three NIT games, all on the road against some pretty good teams, is likely to guarantee that coach Tubby Smith will get a two-year contract extension.

At least departing athletic director Joel Maturi is in favor of the move and, after speaking about it with University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler, Maturi talks like it is going to happen.

"We need to keep Tubby here," Maturi said. "Considering the fact that he lost Trevor Mbakwe for most of the season, that Ralph Sampson has been injured a good part of the season and that Oto Osenieks suffered a concussion in the second NIT game [against Miami], giving Smith a limited bench to work with."

The Gophers won only three conference road games -- at Indiana, Penn State and Nebraska -- and were underdogs in all three NIT games against La Salle, Miami and Middle Tennessee State.

The good news is that the Gophers were 7-1 without Ralph Sampson III, the only senior on the team, and have managed this NIT streak with eight freshmen on the team.

Smith has sung the praises of Rodney Williams and Andre Hollins, who have been the big spark plugs for the team lately.

Williams, who suffered a serious leg cramp and had a big knot in his leg in the final seconds of the team's 78-72 victory over Middle Tennessee State on Wednesday and had to be helped off the floor, has averaged 19.6 points per game since the start of the Big Ten tournament and has shot a sensational 63.9 percent, hitting 39 of 61 shots, most of them on his drive-and-dunk plays.

Williams, who was doing well Thursday and will be healthy for the semfinal against Washington on Tuesday in New York, is finally listening to the coaches and is taking advantage of his ability to drive the basket.

Hollins has averaged 19.4 points on 45.2 percent shooting (33-for-73) since the start of the Big Ten tournament and has been big on key three-point shots with a 38.7 percent rate (12-for-31).

In explaining the improved play of the Gophers, Smith said: "We've started to grow up and mature here lately, but during the season we were so young. You don't have a lot of time to work with guys."

And one of the big things is the team didn't suffer any serious new injuries late in the season, except for Sampson.

Injuries took toll

"We just haven't been healthy," Smith said. "I had [Gophers trainer] Roger Shipper add up how many games we missed [the past two seasons] because of injuries, and practices. I think we missed something like 55 practice times and 45 or 44 games."

Smith talked about how important Hollins has been because he has given the team a true point guard, something they needed badly.

"In the future, we think we're solid at the point guard, we just have to keep him healthy," he said.

"He's playing well, very good. We knew he had the talent," Smith said. "He's a kid that had the injury, turned his ankle, he's now in better shape than he's been in a long time. He's healthier than he's been in a long time. The team is healthier than it's been. Julian Welch, that's why he's playing better, because he missed three games. Maverick Ahanmisi missed two or three games and Ralph has missed a lot of games."

At least now the Gophers will not have to play on an opponent's home floor, since they play the top-seeded Huskies on the neutral Madison Square Garden court. Washington won the Pacific-12 regular-season title, but that wasn't enough to get the Huskies in the NCAA tournament when they failed to win their conference tournament.

Jottings

• Even with North Dakota and the Gophers in the NCAA hockey regional coming up Saturday and Sunday, the combined ticket sales for both games is a disappointing 9,000 for each game.

Delmon Young is having a tremendous spring training for the Detroit Tigers, hitting .472 with five home runs, four doubles, 19 RBI and 10 runs scored in 14 games. Young had similar success last year with the Twins in spring training when he hit .396.

Trey Davis and DeAnne Hahn have earned Big Ten track athletes of the week. Both rank in the top 10 in the nation in their respective events. Davis was named the Big Ten outdoor athlete of the week for winning titles in both the shot put and the discus throw in San Diego. Davis, who gave up a football scholarship to concentrate on track, landed a throw of 58 feet, ¼ inch in the shot put, which ranks him sixth in the country and 177-2 in the discus, which ranks ninth. Hahn was honored for winning the hammer throw with a mark of 197 feet, which ranks first in the Big Ten and seventh in the nation.

Connor Schaefbauer, who will join the Gophers baseball team next season, led Sioux Falls O'Gorman to the South Dakota Class 2A state championship in basketball last weekend. Schaefbauer scored 18 points in O'Gorman's 63-48 victory over Mitchell in the title game and was named to the all-tournament team. Schaefbauer averaged 16.3 points in three state tournament games, a team high.

• Former Twin Nick Punto, who won a World Series title with St. Louis last season, has played well for the Red Sox this spring. The Boston Globe published a long story about Punto's leadership and versatility, quoting manager Bobby Valentine as saying they plan to use Punto at second, shortstop and maybe first base, "He looks like he can make all the plays," Valentine said.

• It was surprising to see that Bovada, an online gambling website out of Las Vegas, has Twins catcher Joe Mauer listed at 20-to-1 odds to win the American League MVP -- that places him as the 10th-place favorite for the award. But what is even more surprising is that Twins first baseman Justin Morneau, despite his injury concerns, ranks 18th at 30-to-1.

• Nick Leddy, the former Gophers defenseman, is second among Chicago Blackhawks defensemen in scoring with three goals and 29 assists in 75 games. ... Hastings native Derek Stepan is fourth in scoring for the New York Rangers with 16 goals and 31 assists, St. Paul native Ryan McDonagh is second among defensemen in scoring with six goals and 21 assists in 73 games and former Gopher Stu Bickel has eight assists and is third on the team with 97 penalty minutes in 42 games.

• Former Twins reliever Pat Neshek pitched a scoreless inning against his former squad Wednesday for Baltimore. He has thrown six innings of scoreless relief this spring with six strikeouts.

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. • shartman@startribune.com

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