Hartman: U victory silences criticism of Smith

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 27, 2013 - 11:39 PM

The Gophers basketball coach showed all his detractors he still knows a thing or two about winning big games.

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Gophers men's basketball coach Tubby Smith

Photo: Brian Ray, Associated Press

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Overnight the Gophers men's basketball team went from the poor house to the penthouse, when it traded thoughts of Tubby Smith being fired, after being swamped in losses at Iowa and Ohio State, into a big upset of No. 1 Indiana.

In beating the Hoosiers on Tuesday, they are pretty much assured of an NCAA tournament berth, and they moved in position to finish the season 10-8 in conference play, should they beat Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue in their final three regular-season games. The Gophers, already with an excellent RPI on Wednesday despite their Big Ten struggles, moved up only one spot in the RPI to No. 14 after the victory,

If the Gophers can play like they did against the Hoosiers on a regular basis, they also will become a contender to win the Big Ten tournament. Last year's club made it to the quarterfinals before losing to Michigan in overtime.

Just as important, the victory shut up a lot of the critics of Smith, those who were demanding the national championship-winning coach be fired. The Gophers might have restored their fans' faith in them after they sank from No. 8 to unranked.

Indiana coach Tom Crean praised Smith at his news conference.

"They have a great coach," Crean said. "I do not know how many people here have Hall of Fame votes, but when his time comes he'll get his share. He belongs in there. He is a high-level coach, and he has a really good team. They had some tough nights, it's a tough league, but they were great on the glass and made big buckets."

As for Trevor Mbakwe, there were several NBA scouts in attendance, and many might have cooled on the pro potential of the Gophers forward. But Tuesday, they saw what he can really do when he scored 21 points, picked up 12 rebounds and shut down the great Indiana center, Cody Zeller, who didn't get a basket in the first half and wound up with nine points, his lowest total of the year.

Zeller, regarded as one of the finest players in the country, was 2-for-9 from the floor, had three shots blocked and committed four turnovers.

Praises Mbakwe

While saying that the Gophers were extremely physical with Zeller and that the center is capable of playing better and will bounce back, Crean sang the praises of Mbakwe, whom he recruited and coached for one year at Marquette.

Crean also opened his delayed news conference by blasting the media who had been critical of Mbakwe, who was averaging 10.1 points and 9.7 rebounds in previous conference games.

"I hope that everybody who has been critical of Mbakwe will back off a little bit," Crean said. "He's a high-level, high-energy guy that plays the game at a desperate level. Obviously, I'm biased but there is no shame in that. He's been in college a long time and he has endured a lot.

"When I signed him at Marquette, I did not feel I would have him more than two, maybe three years tops. Then he got injured that first year and I left and he left and one thing leads to another and here he is. But that is a grown man, who is one of the best rebounders in the country and certainly in our league.

"He was the toughest guy on the court tonight, and we did not answer the bell there."

Mbakwe talked afterward about what a great challenge it was to play the No. 1 team in the country, to go against his former coach and to make up for his team's play in its previous two losses, at Iowa and at Ohio State.

Mbakwe admitted that prior to the game, he had not been playing up to his potential, and he decided to come out a lot more aggressively than he had been.

While Mbakwe was the big star for the Gophers, they wouldn't have won the game without the late scoring of Austin Hollins. The junior guard started the game going an ugly 1-for-9 from the floor with two points. But with the game on the line, he made two three-point plays in the final four minutes, to finish with eight points. His last three-point play came with under 53 seconds left, and that clinched the victory.

Yes a lot of fans who were big critics of Smith were on the floor celebrating one of the Gophers' greatest victories since Clem Haskins took them to the 1997 Final Four.

Different approach

Gophers coaches brought in a psychologist to talk to players before the Indiana game.

"We did some things with them this weekend, we hope to bring some sense of that basketball is great. Guess what? Life goes on, you have to understand that," Smith said.

"... That's the thing I'm talking about, the emotional part of getting too high and too low, I think our guys, that's what happens to you sometimes. You get a false sense of accomplishment. I was just more matter of fact [after the game] and said we have to get busy for tomorrow."

The psychologist might have helped, but perhaps so did the two-a-day practices the Gophers had after the losses.

Jottings

• A couple of weeks ago the annual "Best of the Midwest Combine" -- with the top high school football prospects for 2014-15 and even 2016 -- was held in Indianapolis. Cretin-Derham Hall's Jashon Cornell participated and was rated third among a top group in the 2015 class. The 6-3, 230-pound sophomore has been offered a scholarship by the Gophers.

• The Gophers continue to recruit in Alabama. Highly rated linebacker Nick Holman of Madison, Ala., recently made a visit to campus and was impressed. And because he has relatives here whom he stayed with during his visit, the Gophers have a good chance to land him.

• For the second year in a row, the Gophers wrestling team has beaten Iowa and Oklahoma State, a great feat beating two teams that have been No. 1 on a consistent basis.

• Former Chaska star Ross Travis will be in town Saturday when Penn State visits the Gophers. Travis was a big reason the Nittany Lions earned their first conference victory Wednesday by stunning No. 4 Michigan, with team highs of 15 points and 12 rebounds -- well above his season averages of 6.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. ... Former Osseo standout Sam Dower is playing key minutes for No. 2 Gonzaga, which could be the nation's new No. 1 team come Monday. Dower, a junior, is averaging 17.2 minutes, 7.3 points and 2.9 rebounds per game.

• Former Gophers center Ralph Simpson III is playing again for the Reno of the NBA Development League after not appearing in a game since Dec. 15. He had played in two games this week, totaling just nine minutes but with two rebounds, an assist and a steal.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM 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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