Looking Back at the Tubby Smith Era in Minnesota

Gopher basketball fans are not happy crew these days. Year four of the Tubby Smith era started out with such great promise. We started off playing very good basketball which included wins over North Carolina and West Virginia in Puerto Rico. Some even entertained the crazy talk that this team was comparable to the 1997 Final Four team.

But we all know that the wheels on this bus did not continue to go round and round. In fact this bus got a flat tire, the engine broke down and it rolled into the Mississippi River. Al Nolen's injury hurt more than most expected and Devoe Joseph's distraction/transfer left us void of any depth or backcourt scoring ability. Our great record and lofty RPI went down the tubes and never recovered. These last nine games have resulted in eight losses and frustration around Gopher Nation is hitting a boiling point. As is often the case there is a camp of fans standing firmly behind the coach declaring that circumstances beyond his control have made this season what it is. Then the other group looks at a bigger picture wondering why the program isn't further along with better recruiting and player development to prevent seasons like this happening regardless of circumstances.

But as I've thought about our current situation and studied our current roster I wondered where this roster fits compared to the other four team's Tubby Smith has coached at Minnesota. So for my research I took the starting lineups from the end of each of the last four seasons and compared them to our current lineup. I am looking at more than just the starters or who is averaging more points. But which teams were the deepest, which teams had the best freshman contributing, which teams had better backcourts or frontcourts and then of course overall which teams had the best overall rosters. Here is what I found...

2007-08

PG Lawrence Westrbook SR
SG Lawrence McKenzie SO
F Damian Johnson SO
F Dan Coleman SR
C Spencer Tollackson SR
Bench Jonathan Williams JR
Bench Al Nolen FR
Bench Blake Hoffarber FR
Bench Jamal Abu-Shamala JR

Backcourt Scoring (2) - 20.3
Frontcourt Scoring (3) - 28.0
Bench Scoring (4) - 19.1
Freshman Scoring (2) - 12.7

What this team had was good balance, a decent bench and a couple freshmen who were able to make meaningful contributions at times. Lawrence McKenzie was a scoring guard who shot 43% from behind the arc. The same could be said for Lawrence Westbrook who shot 39% from three. And Blake Hoffarber was a true freshman who could hit threes off the bench making over 42% of his threes. Spencer Tollackson and Dan Coleman were solid big men capable of having big nights. They both struggled to rebound which was this team's primary weakness. Damian Johnson and Al Nolen even at these young ages were two of the best defenders in the conference. This team was pretty good, getting to 20 wins but missed the NCAA Tournament before losing to Maryland in the NIT.

2008-09

PG Al Nolen SO
SG Lawrence Westrbook JR
F Jamal Abu-Shamala SR
F Damian Johnson JR
C Ralph Sampson III FR
Bench Colten Iverson FR
Bench Paul Carter SO
Bench Devoe Joseph FR
Bench Blake Hoffarber SO
Bench Devron Bostick JR

Backcourt Scoring (3) - 22.9
Frontcourt Scoring (2) - 16.1
Bench Scoring (5) - 26.1
Freshman Scoring (3) - 16.7

This was a great defensive team that was rather deep. Scoring was a bit of a struggle with some young guys playing in the paint and Lawrence Westbrook trying to learn how to be a scorer within the framework of the offense. What this team sorely lacked as a power forward. All season this team was starting a shooting guard at small forward with Damian Johnson playing PF.

2009-10

PG Devoe Joseph SO
SG Lawrence Westbrook SR
F Blake Hoffarber JR
F Damian Johnson SR
C Ralph Sampson III SO
Bench Colten Iverson SO
Bench Paul Carter JR
Bench Justin Cobbs FR
Bench Rodney Williams FR

Backcourt Scoring (3) - 32.2
Frontcourt Scoring (2) - 18.1
Bench Scoring (4) - 17.7
Freshman Scoring (2) - 6.4

This season is much like our current situation with Al Nolen missing the latter part of the year and what you see above is our lineup in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournament. And like the 2008-09 season this team could have really used a nice power forward (just imaging Mbakwe on this roster!). With Joseph, Westbrook and Hoffarber we had a backcourt that was capable of scoring and shooting. Our frontcourt wasn't much of a scoring threat and we didn't get a whole lot of production out of our freshman class. But this team had a nice backcourt, even without Nolen, and for the most part they defended well.

2010-11

PG Maverick Ahanmisi FR
SG Blake Hoffarber SR
F Rodney Williams SO
F Trevor Mbakwe JR
C Ralph Sampson III JR
Bench Colten Iverson JR
Bench Austin Hollins FR
Bench Chip Armelin FR

Backcourt Scoring (2) - 15.6
Frontcourt Scoring (3) - 30.8
Bench Scoring (3) - 14.3
Freshman Scoring (3) - 10.6

And we now get to the current Gopher squad. A true freshman starting at point and a forward/center heavy lineup. This team is lacking in depth and backcourt scoring more than any other team in Tubby's tenure. Trevor Mbakwe is probably the best player we've seen in a Gopher uniform in the last four year years and Blake Hoffarber is a very good shooting guard. But the rest of the roster is underwhelming and this is easily the weakest freshman class in the last four years.

So with those little synopsi above in mind take a look at the four year rosters next to each other. I'll take Blake and Mbakwe and even Sampson over the previous rosters. But when you look at depth and defense and overall scoring, the 2010-11 roster might be the weakest in recent Gopher memory. Clearly this season's roster is the weakest bench, the weakest backcourt and probably the weakest freshman class of the Tubby tenure. Trevor and Ralph is as strong a frontcourt as we've had but that is all we've got right now. Take a look below and tell me if you disagree.

2007-08 (20-14) 2008-09 (22-11) 2009-10 (21-14) 20010-11 (17-12)
PG Lawrence Westrbook SR Al Nolen SO Devoe Joseph SO Maverick Ahanmisi SR
SG Lawrence McKenzie SO Lawrence Westrbook JR Lawrence Westbrook SR Blake Hoffarber SO
F Damian Johnson SO Jamal Abu-Shamala SR Blake Hoffarber JR Rodney Williams SO
F Dan Coleman SR Damian Johnson JR Damian Johnson SR Trevor Mbakwe JR
C Spencer Tollackson SR Ralph Sampson III FR Ralph Sampson III SO Ralph Sampson III JR
Bench Jonathan Williams JR Colten Iverson FR Colten Iverson SO Colten Iverson JR
Bench Al Nolen FR Paul Carter SO Paul Carter JR Austin Hollins FR
Bench Blake Hoffarber FR Devoe Joseph FR Justin Cobbs FR Chip Armelin FR
Bench Jamal Abu-Shamala JR Blake Hoffarber SO Rodney Williams FR
Bench Devron Bostick JR

The obvious answer is four years into the Smith tenure our roster shouldn't be this thin. We should have players who Smith recruited for his system and even if we lose guys along the way others have to be ready. That is all very true. But as PJS pointed out a couple weeks ago, not everything is under Smith's control. While I can see both sides of this argument the fact is losing two of your top three guards is really hard to recover from for any team. Back-up plans and back-up plans to that back-up plan can be in place but that doesn't mean you'll be nearly as strong as if you were full strength.

What I do not agree with is the notion that Smith isn't pushing the right buttons, playing the right guys or running the right sets to win these close games. Look at this roster above. This team looks VERY different with Nolen at the point and a guy like Joseph coming off the bench to give us another guard who can shoot and score. Those are two of your four best players. Very few programs (if any) can recover from losing two guys who were supposed to play a combined 55-60 minutes per game and be relied upon for a good chunk of your scoring.

We are losing close games because for the last two years when we have come down to the end of close games we have relied on Al Nolen to get to the rim (getting to the free throw line, making the lay up or passing out to an open shooter). And when he was out a year ago we gave the ball to Devoe Joseph. Now we don't have either. Our most reliable guard is Hoffarber who can't get by anybody and then we are looking at true freshmen who haven't shown they can handle the rock in pressure situations.

There are reasons for frustration and Tubby Smith is not blameless in this mess. Again, I can listen to the arguments about player development and maybe a little on recruiting (though I'm not so down on that, though that 's another post). But take a look at the roster and this is the year with weakest freshman class and three of them are being relied upon in our 8-man rotation. This year has sucked and barring a miraculous recovery from Nolen leading to an equally miraculous Big Ten Tourney run it will soon be over.

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