For Minnesota Basketball, Excuses Are Mostly Legitimate

Four years later, Tubby Smith's honeymoon is officially over in Dinkytown. Welcolmed by Minnesotans as a savior of its long moribund and scandal-laden program, Smith is now learning that Golden Gopher fans want results, not excuses.

During Minnesota's recent four-game losing skid (this was written pre-Iowa) - the longest of Smith's era in Minneapolis - Minnesota fans have heard myriad excuses while watching a once-promising season crumble into another disappointing campaign. Minnesota fans justifiably want results, not spin. But in this case, and I'm as or more disappointed in this year's results than most, I think we need to recognize that Tubby's tenure, while frustrating at times, has yielded mostly positive results and there are many legitimate excuses for not yet turning the Gophers into a Big Ten contender.

After the jump, I explore what's transpired since Tubby came to Minnesota from Kentucky and argue that there's more reason for long-term optimism than ever before even if it's hard to see smack dab in the middle of a season that is failing to live up to expectations.

Tubby's Arival

The 2006-07 season ended one of the most trying times in Golden Gopher history. The days of the Clem Haskins scandal were well-behind the program in as much as the focus was now 100 percent on a lack of results. Dan Monson was fired during the non-conference portion of the schedule that featured an exhibition loss to Winona State an embarrassing trip to Orlando for the Old Spice Classic that resulted in losses to Marist, Southern Illinois and Montana. Non-conference losses followed to Clemson, Alabama-Birmingham and UNLV. Monson was fired. Jim Molinari took over and the results were the same.

The Gophers finished at 9-22, losing its final 9 games. These were dark days at Williams Arena. Students weren't showing. Seats weren't selling. Whether it was the after-effects of the Haskins scandal, Monson's inability to coach or recruit at this level, or both, the once-promising days of the mid-to-late 1990s were a distant memory.

And then a national championship coach from Kentucky arrived.

That 9-22 team from 2006-07 came back in 07-08 largely intact. Spencer Tollackson, Dan Coleman and Lawrence McKenzie returned. So did Lawrence Westbrook. Monson's final two recruits -- Blake Hoffarber and Al Nolen -- arrived. Competing with Monson's players, Tubby and the Gophers went 20-14 in 07-08. The season featured a memorable Big Ten Tournament run that included a Hoffarber miracle against Eric Gordon's nationally ranked Hoosiers and an appearance in the NIT.

The Gophers weren't back to being Big Ten contenders, but a coaching change seemed to make a world of difference. Now it was time to recruit the type of talent that could help the Gophers take the next step.

Tubby's First Class

With his first opportunity to put his own stamp with personnel on the program, Tubby delivered. It's true that the Gophers didn't land a McDonald's All-American, but his 5-man class was a step in the right direction.

Tubby landed a shooting guard from Ajax, Ontario named Devoe Joseph. He was a Rivals 4-star recruit and a top 10 shooting guard in the class. He had offers from Kansas, Michigan, Texas A & M and Vanderbilt, among others. Tubby also landed a big name. Ralph Sampson III who was a 4-star Rivals recruit from Duluth, Ga. He was pitched as a skilled big man with a soft touch. With Tollackson and Coleman graduating, Tubby needed size in the beefy Big Ten. He landed Sampson and Colton Iverson. Iverson wasn't as highly-touted as Sampson, but the South Dakota native had plenty of high-major offers. The combination provided the beef Tubby needed.

That trio of freshman was turned into a 5-man class with junior college transfers Devron Bostick and Paul Carter.

That class was a great start on the recruiting front for Tubby in Minnesota. There was also a near-miss with Draymond Green, who strongly considered the Gophers. And many thought current Indiana point guard Verdell Jones III would pick the Gophers. Despite the near misses, Tubby was off to a fine start.

An NCAA Appearance

One year after taking over a down-on-its-luck program, Tubby and the Gophers took another step in 08-09. The Gophers won on a neutral court against an eventual #1 seed Louisville. They beat Ohio State and Illinois, both nationally ranked, at Williams Arena.

Sampson and Iverson were playing meaningful minutes. Monson holdover Damien Johnson was improving. Westbrook was scoring. Hoffarber was an outside presence. Carter and Bostick were occasionally making a difference. Meanwhile, some of Monson's recruits, such as Jonathan Williams, Jamal Abu-Shamala and Kevin Peyton, were seeing their playing time dwindle.

The Gophers wound up with a 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the program's first trip to the NCAA's since 2005. They lost to a superior team from Texas.

Tubby's Second Class

If Minnesota fans were happy with the class led by Joseph and Sampson, they were thrilled with Tubby's second class. A popular refrain among fans and pundits was that Tubby needed to close Minnesota's borders if the Gophers were going to succeed. There might not be enough talent in Minnesota alone to compete for Big Ten championships, but the state's top talent had to start staying home.

And they did.

Royce White was a Rivals 5-star recruit and the #2 power forward in the country. He could have went anywhere. He picked the Gophers. Rodney Williams was a 4-star Rivals recruit and a top-20 small forward in the country. His athleticism was second to none and even as a high schooler, Williams was said to have considerable NBA potential. Both were MInnesota natives.

That class also included junior-college transfer Trevor Mbakwe. We now get the pleasure of watching him twice per week. Rounding out that class was Justin Cobbs, a point guard from California that had offers from other high-major programs.

In his second recruiting class, Tubby didn't meet expectations, he exceeded them. He added a would-be star in White. He added a physical specimen in Mbakwe. He added a coveted athlete in Williams. Add that to two big men from Tubby's first class in Sampson and Iverson and a scorer in Joseph, and all of a sudden Minnesota fans were thinking that the corner was being turned.

Soon, we thought without the need for maroon-tinted glasses, the Gophers would contend for Big Ten championships.

2009-10: A Season of Headaches and Treading Water

We don't need to rehash the reasons why, but Royce White never played in a game for the Gophers. For a team that had two centers (Sampson and Iverson), two small forwards (Johnson and Carter) and four capable guards (Nolen, Joseph, Westbrook and Hoffarber), losing White wasn't devastating but it also meant the Gophers weren't going to take a leap forward. Thanks to his own headaches, Mbakwe couldn't suit up. The Gophers didn't have a power forward at all, and they certainly didn't have the difference maker they thought White would be.

Perhaps White's off-the-court drama led to other issues. During the early-season 76 Classic in Anaheim that I attended, the Gophers stormed out of the gate with an upset win over then #10 Butler, the same Bulldogs that would eventually be the national runners-up. Then a locker-room altercation between Westbrook and Nolen sent the Gophers spiraling. Instead of taking care of business the next night, the Gophers lost to the Portland Pilots. To wind down the weekend, the Gophers lost again, this time to Texas A&M.

As the season progressed, the would-he or won't-he conversations surrounding White continued. There were YouTube videos, negative press and more off-the-court distraction than any program wants. White is now sitting on the bench at Iowa State, waiting to play next year.

As this transpired, the Gophers treaded water. Westbrook was occasionally great and occasionally horrible. Bostick had his own off-the-court issues and was suspended at the start of the season and never found a groove. Nolen was suspended for the second half of the season, including the post-season, for academic failings.

Regardless, the Gophers won most of the games they should have won and behind Joseph's offense beat Penn State, #11 MSU and #6 Purdue on its way to a loss to the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Tournament Championship. The disappointing season had been saved. The Gophers competed for a Big Ten Tournament Championship, having persevered. They made the NCAA Tournament again, this time losing to Xavier.

With largely the same personnel as the previous year, the Gophers performed to the level that they should have. The off-the-court headaches and disappointing loss of White, Mbakwe and Nolen kept the program from taking another step forward, but we should view this season of treading water as an accomplishment.

And the Hits Just Keep on Coming . ...

It couldn't get worse. White's self-inflicted drama was gone. Nolen had straightened out in the classroom. Mbakwe was ready to suit up. And, after all, the Gophers had been to two consecutive NCAA Tournaments without helping kids cheat in the classroom. Things were still looking up, even if Tubby's third season didn't yield the results we all initially wanted. Instead, in Tubby's third year, the Gophers yielded the results that the team on the floor were capable of.

Last off season saw seniors Damian Johnson and Lawrence Westbrook graduate. DJ Swat, as we came to call him, was a defensive difference maker and the proverbial heart of the team. Westbrook, while an enigma, could take over games and shut down opposing guards. To make matters worse, Paul Carter, who looked to be a maturing left-handed version of Johnson, transferred to the University of Illinois at Chicago to be near his sister who was battling cancer. Justin Cobbs transferred to California for the stated reason of wanting to be closer to home. While opinions differ on Cobbs' potential, it's no secret that he would have been third on Minnesota's depth chart this season behind Nolen and Joseph.

As the season was set to begin, Minnesota fans learned that Joseph would be suspended for violating team rules. With yet another headache, the Gophers traveled to Puerto Rico for a non-conference tournament. They walked away with a championship and wins over Western Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia.

We were all thinking in unison just how good this team would be once Joseph had his issues behind him. Except, we didn't know, that his issues would never be behind him. Joseph returned briefly and looked to be a shell of his former self. He was erratic at best. His defense, never great to begin with, was lackadaisical. But his return coincided with Nolen battling through a stress fracture in his foot. We all thought that Joseph could regain his composure during the soft portion of the non-conference slate as Nolen recovered.

And then it happened. After a tough 1-3 start to conference play having lost in places they should have lost (Ohio State, MSU and Wisconsin), Joseph transferred. It's been widely speculated that Joseph was about to be suspended again and instead of suffering that fate, the junior guard transferred mid-season to Oregon. For the Gophers, when it rains, it pours. Not long after, Nolen had a broken foot and wouldn't return until the Big Ten Tournament.

The Gophers had went from Puerto Rico Tip-Off Champions with thoughts of a run in March to a team that had its two-headed point guard monster ripped away.

While we're all upset now during a 4-game losing streak, would any of us had predicted the Gophers would be a top-tier Big Ten team if their lineup was Hoffarber at point, Austin Hollins at SG, Williams at SF and Mbakwe / Sampson / Iverson in the paint? It's just not possible to consistently perform with a shooting guard playing point guard. Especially if that shooting guard is your team's most important shooter and isn't exactly a noted ball-handler.

You win in college basketball with guards. Remember 1997? Bobby Jackson? Sam Jacobsen? Guards win games. Thanks to attrition, injuries and bad behavior (Joseph), the Gophers just don't have any guards. Period.

The Excuses

Tubby hasn't handled the 4-game losing streak well. That has allowed some aged and divisive Star Tribune columnists to take some cheap shots. But let's look at what Tubby is saying.

After the loss to #1 Ohio State, Tubby again reiterated his request (or perhaps demand) for a practice facility to keep up with the Joneses. It probably wasn't the right time to make that ask, considering their are other reasons his team didn't beat the #1 team in the land. But Tubby's also right. The Gophers aren't going to land recruits like Jared Sullinger if they don't position themselves to compete. This wasn't the best way for Tubby to lobby for his practice facility. But that doesn't change the fact that he's right. And in four years, movement from Joel Maturi on this front has been minimal at best.

After the loss to Illinois, Tubby criticized this team's leaders. He said last year's men led the way and this year he has boys. That seemed to be a shot at Blake Hoffarber, who is doing all he can to play out of position and help his team. It seems ill-advised to criticize Hoffaber, but I'm not going to question Tubby's decisions on motivation. As one columnist pointed out, the Gophers were 5-7 in conference play last year too and it was Westbrook who was being called out. The team responded with a great finish to the regular season.

The excuses that Tubby could be talking about, but isn't, are the ones that are meaningful. Namely, the Gophers were slammed with injuries. Joseph's self-medication off court issues led to a transfer. Nolen's foot happens to be broken. Maurice Walker, a thick banger with ball skills is on the sidelines out for the year. Those aren't excuses, actually. It's the hand Minnesota has been dealt. Combined with last season's debacle with White, the transfer of Carter and Cobbs, this is a lot for any program to overcome.

If there's one area where Tubby might deserve criticism, it's his third recruiting class. Thanks to Walker's injury, the jury is still out on him. After Cobbs transferred, Tubby signed Maverick Ahanmisi who seems over-matched. He added Austin Hollins, a 3-star wing that had offers from Memphis and Oregon State, among others. And he added Chip Armelin, a spunky guard that didn't have high-major offers. Armelin, a would-be top-end defensive back in football, picked basketball. The jury is still out on both guards.

But under no scenario were these guys recruited to have a major impact on this year's team. Hollins at most was seen as someone that could get some minutes off the bench spelling Hoffarber or Williams. Armelin could have battled for those same minutes. Ahanmisi was the third PG on this roster to begin the season. Now, he's the only PG.

What does that mean? It means that Hollins, a would-be role-player, is starting. It means that Armelin, an intriguing project, is playing meaningful minutes. With Walker's injury, it means the Gophers have one less big body to bang. While this recruiting class was the weakest on paper in Tubby's tenure, those that are still healthy are being asked to do far more than they were expected to do this season.

Conclusions

These last two seasons have been disappointing in large part because our expectations prior to each season were high. We thought we'd have a dynamic duo of White and Mbakwe last year. We'll never see White in maroon and gold. That's not Tubby's fault.

Joseph and Nolen would have been as good of a duo at point guard there is in the Big Ten. Joseph left the program because he couldn't play by the rules and Nolen broke his foot. That's not Tubby's fault.

Blake Hoffarber, the best sharp-shooter in program history, is the team's primary point guard. That's not Tubby's fault. We can criticize Tubby for the recruitment of Ahanmisi, but Tubby couldn't have anticipated having to turn to his third-string point guard.

For the most part, the Gophers have beaten teams they should and lost to teams they should lose to. There have been exceptions, as the Gophers won at Wisconsin, beat North Carolina, Louisville and West Virginia on neutral floors and made a run to the Big Ten Championship game. And there have been consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. Despite the obstacles presented, Tubby's Gophers have persevered.

As the face of the program, it's easy to blame Tubby when things aren't going as planned. But when you look close, he's persevered in the face of adversity the last two seasons, put together 2 solid recruiting classes (with 2 yet to be determined) and built the program from a 9 win laughingstock to a program that is still moving in the right direction.

I'll close with this. In the program's history, the Gophers have never been to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments. After four years, if the Gophers can take care of business down the stretch, Tubby will have done what no other coach has been able to do with this program. He'll have set a standard of reaching the NCAA Tournament every year.

If that's not a step in the right direction, I don't know what is.

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