Tubby Smith kicked off the season at "Tubby's Tipoff" in mid-October by roaring into Williams Arena on a motorcycle, a middle-aged man's symbol of freedom.

Smith rarely looked so carefree a year ago during a season of drama and distractions. But with 2009-10 in his rear-view mirror, the Gophers men's basketball coach said he's enjoying a much more relaxed season. And those close to the coach say they haven't seen this level of calm in years.

"Who wouldn't be?" Smith said when asked about his mood this season as the 21st-ranked Gophers (9-1) prepare to face Akron (4-3) at home on Wednesday. "I know our team is more relaxed and I think they're playing that way. It's good to have guys doing what they're supposed to do and not have all the distractions."

He's still the hard-nosed coach he's always been, according to players. He'll still snarl when they miss defensive assignments or ride a guy who's out of sync in practice.

But he's more laid back, junior guard Devoe Joseph said. And it's rubbing off on the rest of his team.

"He always has a little sense of humor," Joseph said. "He'll come in the beginning of practice and tell stories or tell jokes, so he's always had that in him. Obviously, everyone has their days where they're not going to be as relaxed as others. But usually he comes in and is pretty fun."

Smith's change in demeanor even affects the way he coaches, as he balances his in-game critiques with more praise.

During his team's 71-58 victory over Eastern Kentucky on Saturday, Smith scolded Rodney Williams from the sideline following a gaffe on defense.

When the sophomore forward forced a turnover, however, Smith clapped and shouted: "Rodney! Good job."

Williams was part of the program's most talented recruiting class in decades, but a promising 2009-10 season was crushed by legal problems and academic issues. Trevor Mbakwe was sidelined all season because of an anticipated court procedure that never happened. Royce White left school in February without playing a minute for the program. Al Nolen missed the second semester because of academic trouble.

Even Smith couldn't escape the drama. Former Gophers assistant Jimmy Williams won a $1 million award in court after claiming Smith promised him a job on his staff, only to have Athletic Director Joel Maturi nix the hiring.

Smith took a summer trip to Africa that he said renewed him spiritually. He returned to Minneapolis with a fresh outlook and less stress.

Part of his ongoing serenity stems from the performance of his freshman class, which he calls the "most mature group of freshmen" he's coached. Plus, his fourth season hasn't involved a multitude of problems -- excluding Joseph's six-game suspension for a violation of team rules -- beyond injuries.

Longtime friend and mentor J.D. Barnett said he's noticed a significant difference compared to recent years.

"Tubby is more relaxed. He's the most relaxed I've ever seen him," said Barnett, who hired Smith as an assistant when he was head coach at Virginia Commonwealth in the early '80s. "I think he likes his kids. Every year there's been a problem, there's been a major issue every year. I think he's got kids now that he really enjoys coaching."

Senior guard Blake Hoffarber said players have helped their coach by policing themselves and avoiding off-court problems, which allows Smith to focus on coaching.

He warns, however, that Smith's calm shouldn't be misinterpreted.

"I think this year he's being a little more relaxed, but he'll be the first one to tell [a player] they're not working hard or they need to get better," Hoffarber said. "It's always good to have two sides with a coach. And I think he does a good job switching it around."

Notes

• Senior point guard Al Nolen said he might be ready to return next week when the Gophers face South Dakota State but doesn't expect to play against Akron. He said a stress fracture has caused the foot pain that's kept him out of action for the team's past four games. Doctors considered surgery to address the foot injury, but Nolen said he opted against the procedure.

"I'm feeling good," he said. "They've got a couple orthotics for me in my shoes, help taking the pressure off that one area. ... I'm just trying to get my wind back out here and get ready to play."

• As part of an ongoing initiative with Toys for Tots, the Gophers are seeking toy donations at Wednesday's game and the Dec. 22 women's basketball game, both at Williams Arena. Officials planned to collect toys at last weekend's men's and women's hockey games that were rescheduled because of the weather.