Tuesday was a red-letter day for Tubby Smith. He made it through an entire news conference without blaming Trevor Mbakwe's knee injury on the Minnesota administration's unwillingness to build him a practice facility.
Don't laugh. It was less than a year ago that Smith blamed a Big Ten loss on bosses who are paying him more than $2 million a year but make him practice on the Williams Arena floor. When it comes to leaps of logic, Smith can jump out of the gym.
Mbakwe's injury damages the Gophers' chances of contending in the Big Ten this season. It also plays perfectly into Smith's world view. He has been quite willing to blame his players or bosses for his lack of success at Minnesota.
Let's view Mbakwe's injury not as a cataclysmic event but as a predictable setback. Players get hurt. When fans and analysts predict doom for the Gophers basketball team because of an injury to a player who was a second-team Big Ten performer as a junior and is averaging 14 points as a senior, what they're really doing is demonstrating just how tepid Smith's tenure has been.
Smith is in his fifth season at Minnesota. He is being paid more than $2 million a year, yet has not finished higher than sixth in the Big Ten.
When he first arrived, Smith could blame Dan Monson's recruits for losses. Last season, he could blame his players or the mythical practice facility. So he did.
Five years into his reign, Smith should take full responsibility for his record. He recruited all of these players. If one injury can ruin a season, then he hasn't recruited enough good ones, or coached them well enough to develop depth on his hand-picked roster.
Tuesday, at least, Smith sounded positive notes. At a news conference inside Williams Arena, Smith said, ''There's always a bright side, if you look for it."
Then, Smith made two players available to the media. Not Mbakwe and, say, Ralph Sampson III, his second-best big man. No, he trotted out Elliott Eliason and Oto Osenieks, who seemed to be as confused at their presence at the podium as the reporters in the room.
Perhaps that was Smith's way of emphasizing how thin his frontcourt will be without Mbakwe. Or maybe he just doesn't care whether Gophers fans get to hear from his most important players.
Whether he cares about the people who follow his program or not, one injury should not doom a power coach in his fifth season at a major-college program. Compare Smith's tenure to that of Purdue coach Matt Painter.
Before the 2005-2006 season, Painter took over a program that had finished seventh and 10th in the Big Ten the previous two seasons. He finished 10th in his first season.
Painter was starting his third season as the Purdue head coach when Smith arrived. Since then, Smith is 32-40 in the league. Painter is 54-18.
In each of the past two seasons, Painter lost a star player, Robbie Hummel, to injury. In 2010, Painter took Purdue to the Sweet Sixteen. In 2011, Painter took Purdue to the NCAA tournament again, going 1-1.
If Smith has done his job as a recruiter and developer of talent, he should have enough talent on hand to at least replicate Monson's best season.
Monson faced the challenge of rebuilding the Gophers program following Clem Haskins' ouster. In Monson's fifth season at Minnesota, the Gophers finished 3-13 in the Big Ten. The next season, Monson rededicated himself, recruited Vincent Grier from a junior college and relied on a shallow but tenacious roster. He finished 10-6 in the Big Ten and earned an NCAA tournament berth.
A power coach should be able to accomplish at least that much in his fifth year on the job, with a program that was not recovering from NCAA sanctions when he arrived.
Tuesday, Smith did not downplay expectations for this team. Considering his reputation, what he's being paid, and his responsibility as a recruiter, no one should let him get away with it if he tries.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org