The Gophers limped into the NCAA tournament on Sunday, their season technically still alive but any real optimism extinguished by a stockpile of losses.
They did enough in November and December to secure an at-large berth to the tournament. And they failed enough in January and February to tumble to a No. 11 seed. The one-time Top-10 team clung to its RPI ranking and strength of schedule as a life preserver.
And so the Gophers enter the tournament as a double-digit seed and almost an afterthought on the national level, a team that even some of its own fans don’t believe belongs in the field. The Gophers have lost 11 of their past 16 games, the players look miserable and their coach’s future hinges on what happens in the tournament.
Welcome to March Madness.
Speaking of madness, here’s something else that should raise the blood pressure of Gophers fans: Tubby Smith receives a $100,000 bonus by virtue of his team making the tournament. That’s right, a six-figure performance bonus.
Tournament bonuses are standard clauses in coaches’ contracts these days. But rewarding Smith for a job well done is hard to stomach given the way the season unraveled and undercut a promising start.
It’s ironic, too, because Smith enters the tournament on the hot seat and probably needs a Sweet 16 appearance to feel completely safe. Anything less should compel athletic director Norwood Teague to make a change, even if Smith’s $2.5 million buyout seems unpalatable. Smith responded to a question about his job security Sunday night by noting that he works in a profession of “What have you done for me lately?”
This is a critical time for Tubby and his program. The Gophers became one of the biggest disappointments in college basketball this season. But they get one final chance to prove themselves, to show that they are indeed a good team capable of achieving success in March. Or they could continue to flounder and look disinterested and just go away quietly.
“We know how good we are,” senior forward Rodney Williams said matter-of-factly.
That’s what makes the Gophers so maddening to watch. They raised everyone’s hopes with a 15-1 start and then crumpled under the weight of heightened expectations. They beat the No. 1 team in the country and suffered back-to-back 20-point losses. They’ve played inspired and appeared lifeless. They’re a basketball teeter-totter.
“We haven’t played our best basketball,” junior guard Austin Hollins said. “None of that matters at this point.”
Selection Sunday is supposed to be a festive occasion for teams to celebrate their season and inclusion in the tournament. The mood around the Gophers felt strangely sullen. The team opted to watch the selection show in private, eschewing the public party many schools choose. At a news conference afterward, Smith, Williams and Hollins spoke repeatedly about their struggles this season and how the tournament provides a second chance. None of them showed any real emotion or outward joy.
The Gophers felt reasonably confident they had done enough to make the tournament field, but that was always a minimum expectation. This season should be viewed in a broader context because this is Smith’s best and most talented team at Minnesota. This team was supposed to be different from the others.
“We feel like we can play with just about anyone,” Smith said.
They get a clean slate starting Friday against UCLA in the opening game. Good luck trying to predict which Gophers team will show up, the good or the bad.
But this is what we’d like to see from them: Embrace this opportunity. Enjoy it. Relax and just play.
College basketball is supposed to be fun. The Gophers make it look like a chore. They look like an unhappy bunch that’s been dragged down by losing and their coach’s withering criticism.
Their season didn’t develop the way they thought, but they can’t change that now. They can only make the most of this opportunity. The Gophers keep telling everyone that they still are a good team. It’s not too late to prove it.