One of the only things Gophers men's basketball coach Tubby Smith didn't accomplish this season was to break the long string of defeats at the hands of Illinois. That streak reached 20 with a 54-50 loss in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament on Saturday.

But Smith, in my opinion, performed a miracle this year in bringing the program back by winning 20 games -- 11 more than the team won last year -- and they were competitive most of the season.

The Gophers likely will win a few more games this year because they will get an opportunity to play some more games in the NIT.

Like Smith was told by former Gophers coach Clem Haskins and friend and former Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey, Minnesota was a great program for a coach to step into.

Basketball was down, coach Dan Monson had a lot of critics, and the right guy could step into a great situation -- especially a successful coach such as Smith. Things have worked out well for the former Kentucky coach, and the future looks great.

I admit I was one of the few boosters of Monson, and questioned whether he should have been fired after seven games last season.

My theory was that whoever succeeded Haskins after the big academic fraud scandal -- which cost Haskins, vice president McKinley Boston and athletic director Mark Dienhart their jobs -- was going to have a hard time winning.

Through the bulk of the Monson era, he was operating under several NCAA restrictions which handicapped his recruiting. Smith walked in with a clean slate and a reputation as one of the great recruiters and coaches in the country.

So Gophers fans can look forward to a lot of great basketball in the future.

Jefferson's fine future

While the Timberwolves have struggled to win, one note of progress has been Al Jefferson's development into one of the best big men in the NBA.

One of the many scouts who attend games at Target Center talked the other night about how Jefferson is a better player now than Kevin Garnett was at the same stage, and if he was the general manager of the Wolves, he wouldn't trade Jefferson for Garnett. The Celtics are playing for this year, and the Wolves are playing for the future.

What Wolves coach Randy Wittman likes about Jefferson, who is only three years out of high school, is his great upside.

"He's not plateaued out, where he doesn't really have anywhere to go," Wittman said. "He's a young guy that has been filling in a position this year for the first time of being kind of the number one option and the ball playing through him.

"He's seeing double teams and triple teams that he's never seen before, and he's learning how to play out of that. Each night he has played probably as consistent as anybody in being someone in that role. That's a difficult role to accept [when] you have to do it for the first time and he's done a great job of that."

Wittman says one thing Jefferson has to improve is his defense.

"I think that's his next step," Wittman said. "He's got to become more of a defender that can block shots back there for us, can protect the rim a little bit. We don't have a person back there that can protect the rim, and I think that's the next step he's got to make."

While the Wolves have made a number of bad moves over the years, the Celtics trade that brought Jefferson, Ryan Gomes and Sebastian Telfair for Garnett was one of the best trades made recently by any team in the NBA.

Jottings

It's surprising that Gophers guard Travis Busch, a non-scholarship player who hadn't been used much during the season, not only played 11 minutes in the 59-58 victory over Indiana in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals Friday, but also threw the inbound pass to Blake Hoffarber that led to Hoffarber's game-winning basket.

Smith had former Gophers quarterback Tony Dungy, now the coach of the Indianapolis Colts, talk to the team before the Indiana victory. Dungy also was interviewed Saturday on the CBS telecast of the Minnesota- Illinois game, wearing a Gophers jacket. Dungy actually was a better basketball player than a football player in high school, and one reason he chose Minnesota was that then football coach Cal Stoll allowed him to play both sports. Dungy played basketball for only one year at Minnesota. He was a freshman on the same team with Flip Saunders, coach of the Detroit Pistons -- two pretty good coaches on the same team.

The Jaguars' recent signing of former Vikings quarterback Todd Bouman to a contract is an indication of the shortage of experienced quarterbacks on the market. Bouman hasn't thrown a pass in an NFL game since 2005, when he started the final three games for the Saints.

Eddie Olson of Mahtomedi has become the third high school junior to verbally commit to the Gophers football team. Olson is a highly rated offensive linemen. The other two to verbally commit from the Class of 2009 are quarterback Moses Alipate of Bloomington Jefferson and offensive lineman Josh Campion of Fergus Falls.

Alex Ortiz of Newberg, Ore., a three-time state wrestling champion with a 95-0 record, has announced he will wrestle for the Gophers starting with the 2009-2010 season. Ortiz, who is expected to wrestle at 165 or 174 pounds in college, placed second in the USA Wrestling National Championships in Greco- Roman and fourth in freestyle.

Chris Murray, who represents former Gophers and Colts tight end Ben Utecht, said he doubts the Colts will match the offer the Bengals made to Utecht of three years and $8.75 million. The Colts, who have salary cap problems, have until Friday to decide whether they will match and keep Utecht.

Defensive tackle Spencer Johnson and running back Mewelde Moore wound up with the biggest increase in salary among Vikings free agents who decided to move. Johnson earned $855,000 last year and his new salary with Buffalo is $3.5 million. Moore went from $610,000 with the Vikings to $1.65 million with the Steelers. Fullback Tony Richardson went from $845,000 with the Vikings to $875,000 with the Jets. Linebacker Dontarrious Thomas signed with the 49ers for the same $870,000 he made this past season. Safety Dwight Smith went from $2.2 million with the Vikings to $2.5 million with the Lions. Safety Tank Williams got a $15,000 raise from $635,000 to $650,000.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on his Podcast twice a week at www.startribune.com/sidcast. shartman@startribune.com