"We haven't really stepped up in big games. That's why you go out and recruit better players. And hopefully, we'll get that in the future."
That was Gophers head coach Tubby Smith, following his team's defeat to a 12-loss Michigan team at "The Barn" on Thursday.
In journalism, a profession in which we often wonder if people are being truthful, Smith’s honesty is welcomed. And he is right. Not even John Wooden could win with the collection of “talent” on this year’s Gophers squad. But whose fault is that? I have yet to hear Smith accept responsibility.
Even without Royce White and Trevor Mbakwe, at the start of the season, the Gophers had their top-nine scorers back from last year’s NCAA tournament team. And this year’s schedule is easier (they don't play Wisconsin or Illinois twice plus the non-conference portion was laughable). Unless they win out – which has about the same chance of happening as Gophers football coach Tim Brewster agreeing to do a radio interview with Patrick Reusse on ESPN 1500 -- they will be NIT bound. There could be a great game at "The Barn" in mid-March: North Carolina, the defending champs, versus the Gophers.
Al Nolen is clearly missed -- way more than anyone could have guessed -- but aren't Smith and his staff supposed to make sure that Nolen is showing up for class and putting in the necessary effort?
Unfortunately, a better recruiting class is not coming in next year. The Gophers have verbal commitments from guard Austin Hollins and center Elliott Eliason. The experts view both as decent players, but certainly not program-changers. They are in on Devoe Joseph's brother, Cory, a McDonald's All-American, but so are Texas, Villanova, and UConn. Joseph’s best friend is on his way to Texas, so it is difficult envisioning him as a Gopher. Not a surprise because, if you talk to any diehard Kentucky fan, they will tell you that Smith is not known for recruiting.
Any elite high school player can turn on a Gopher game and see that Smith makes far too many substitutions. Great players likely want to be guaranteed at least 33 minutes per game. They also want to see good offensive flow. The Gophers generally score points as a result of their pressure defense. They struggle in half-court sets. Movement is limited compared to most teams. Far too often, there seems to be mass confusion until Lawrence Westbrook tries to beat his guy one-on-one as the shot clock winds down.
As we enter the final seven regular season games of Smith's third-year, player development does not appear to be a real strength. Is he becoming Don Lucia-like? A case can be made that Joseph, Westbrook, Ralph Sampson III, Colton Iverson, Devron Bostick, and Paul Carter all have failed to improve this season.
As I have previously mentioned, Smith should be in the Hall of Fame right now, but will his iconic touch ever reach the Gophers?
Smith's name came up last offseason for the Virginia and Arizona jobs. Presumably, his name will come up again this year for openings in the ACC (think North Carolina State) and SEC. Will Smith entertain the thought of leaving? Could he view the Wolfpack job as far less of a dire situation than the Gophers' job?
There are far more questions than answers right now surrounding what is at many times the third-most popular team in town.