About eight months ago, Tubby Smith signed a contract extension that would keep him at Minnesota through the 2016-2017. But as the ultimate sign of how this season has gone, when the Gophers head coach talked of his team’s berth into the NCAA tournament, he expressed none of the feelings of security that would seem to follow such a move.
“This is a business of what have you done for me lately,” Smith deadpanned. “That’s the way the business operates. That’s the profession we chose. That’s not up to me. We just do our job, do the best we can and go from there.”
Perhaps if things had gone differently, Sunday’s announcement would have been viewed as more of an accomplishment.
The Gophers, as a No. 11 seed in the South Region, will face No. 6 seed UCLA on Friday in Austin. This is their third NCAA berth in six years under Smith, though they are still awaiting their first victory under the coach. They haven’t been in the NCAA tournament since 2010, when they lost as an No. 11-seed to Xavier in the first round.
This year was supposed to be different. The Gophers were supposed to gallop into the tournament, not limp there.
Even after Minnesota was chosen, Twitter showed obvious lingering frustration from Gophers fans who have watched their team’s 15-1 start dissolve after a 5-11 finish that left the Gophers sweating whether they might miss the tournament altogether. Those fans have put heat on Smith, who led Kentucky to a national championship in 1998 but hasn’t yet translated that success to Minnesota.
“We always feel pressure — not pressure, but you always want to be your best,” said Smith, who earned a $100,000 bonus for making the NCAA field. “But we know where we are. … You always want to win. And when you don’t, it’s really demoralizing.”
That sentiment, earned from a 0-3 finish to the season and a bevy of second-half failures, showed on the faces of team captains Rodney Williams and Austin Hollins, who bookended Smith during Sunday’s news conference. Both players looked surprisingly sullen as they answered questions about the achievement.
“It will be somewhat of a breath of fresh air, but at the same time UCLA is a tough team,” said Hollins, a junior who will be going to the NCAA tournament for the first time in his career. “We can’t just relax because we’re stepping out of our conference, which is a top conference. UCLA is a tough team. They’re going to be a tough team to play against.”
Minnesota still entered Sunday with a mostly firm hold on an NCAA bid because its overall resume is solid. While the Gophers’ RPI (34) has dipped in the last couple of weeks, they still have the nation’s fourth-ranked strength of schedule, 11 wins over the RPI top 100 and five wins over ranked teams. Even during their slump, they had huge home victories over Wisconsin and a court rushing-caliber triumph over then-No. 1 Indiana.
Unfortunately for the Gophers, those moments proved to be blips on the radar rather than a part of something larger. They followed up the Indiana win with a pair of bad losses at Nebraska and Purdue before falling to Illinois in the first round of the conference tournament.
“We know that we haven’t played well, but we also know it’s another opportunity for us to measure ourselves and test ourselves against a very good UCLA Bruins team,” Smith said.
It’s another opportunity for Smith, as well, whose body of work — and $2.5 million buyout — will likely be looked at long and hard by ‘U’ administration after the season. A run in this year’s tournament would help answer the “what have you done for me lately” sentiment Smith mentioned.
“Obviously there are things we need to continue to do to grow the program and improve the program,” Smith said. “As I’ve said before, I don’t apologize or defend anything. We do the best we can, we do a good job and that’s why we’re NCAA bound right now.”