I, like pretty much everyone who has been paying attention, am not happy with the current state of the Gopher basketball program. I, like pretty much everyone else, sincerely believed that we would be and should be more competitive at this point in the Tubby Smith era. Five seasons under Tubby Smith with only 2 NCAA Tournament appearances and no post-season wins is not at all what I (or we) expected. But I also believe that this program is not in the state of extreme distress that many are making it out to be. I think there are a too many unfair criticisms being thrown around and I also believe that it is way too easy to be a fan when coaching is actually incredibly hard. Ultimately I do not believe that a coaching change is necessarily the right answer yet.
This is not meant to be a Tubby apologist post where I try to convince you were should be thankful he is here. I'm not of the assumption that he has been working miracles just to keep us at the level of mediocrity we are seeing. I do believe he is responsible for the current state of the program. Yes, there have been some devastating injuries and yes he has had to deal with some knuckleheads. And along the way there clearly have been some wrong decisions made. But also to be fair there have been some positives, like making back-to-back NCAA Tournaments and were it not for Nolen's injury he almost certainly would have been the first to lead the Gophers to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments. There has been some good in the Tubby era and there has been quite a bit of bad. Altogether it equates to mediocrity. Some are no longer willing to stand for it. I, for one, am not ready to abandon ship (or demand a new captain) quite yet.
There are a number of valid reasons to be critical of Tubby and the state of the program. But I think there are more invalid criticism then there are valid ones at this point. Some of these unfair criticisms need to be addressed.
First is the notion that Tubby cannot recruit. The argument goes something like the current talent level on the team is because Tubby hasn't been able to, for whatever reason, bring in talented enough players to compete in the Big Ten. I think that is unfair and untrue. There are problems with overall talent on the current roster but that is largely a function of not being able to keep players, not because he couldn't get talented kids into the program. As was pointed out in Marcus Fuller's article the other day, were it not for some transfers this would be an extremely talented team that right now would be competing for a Big Ten title (especially if Mbakwe were healthy). I'm not going to give a free pass on the transfers, that IS a problem. But the notion that he can't or is doing a poor job recruiting is false. He has brought in kids capable of being a "go-to" scorer, he has kept the best of local talent here, he has recruited a solid PG capable of leading a Big Ten team and he has guys on this roster who fit nicely into his system allowing for solid depth. Unfortunately many of them are no longer in the program and their scholarships had to be filled by kids with significantly lesser talent.
It is true that guys like Maverick Ahanmisi, Chip Armelin and Andre Ingram have no business seeing significant minutes on a Big Ten team. But those guys were late additions to make up for transfers. They were clearly not at the top of the recruiting wish list, but they were easy gets when there was very little available.
The fact is that he has recruited some very talented kids. Royce White, Devoe Joseph, Andre Hollins, Joe Coleman, Rodney Williams, Justin Cobbs and Trevor Mbakwe are all capable of being all-conference caliber players. Some have been already, some will be this year and the freshman have shown enough promise that they may end up earning that distinction before they graduate. Tubbys' problem has not been recruiting enough talent to Minnesota, the problem has been keeping it here.
The blame for that can be passed around. Some of it belongs on the shoulders of the players. White and Joseph both had some maturing to do and Tubby's old-school methods of straightening them out did not work. Joel Maturi was clearly part of the decision to keep Royce White in street clothes until his issues were straightened out. And Tubby, with a little bit of ego massaging, probably could have salvaged at least one or two of the transfers. Plenty of blame to go around on the attrition, but I'm trying to stay on point. Are we landing top 20 classes? No, but if that is your expectations then you may need rethink your expectations. Recruiting talent here has not been the problem.
This leads me to the second common criticism of Tubby Smith, his player development. This is a common critique offered up by fans who fall out of love with their team's head coach. Usually it is based on very little substance. Most often it is because there is one particular player who has not lived up to expectations. In the case of the current Gopher roster, it is because Ralph Sampson has had a terrible senior year and really hasn't improved much since his sophomore season. So the notion that RSIII has not improved is 100% accurate, but that is not indicative of the rest of the team. And most importantly it is not proof positive that Tubby and his staff are not capable of developing players.
Just this season I would argue that Austin Hollins is much improved over last year on both ends of the floor. Rodney Williams is not playing at an NBA lottery level, but he has very much improved defensively while slightly improving on the offensive end. In addition to solid improvements in points and rebounds his FG% jumped from 46.7% as a sophomore to 56.5% this year! Even Chip and Mav have shown modest improvements, they just don't have a very high ceiling. Tubby can make them better but those guys have a limit. Going back I think Blake Hoffarber improved quite a bit, especially defensively and as a passer. Damien Johnson and Lawrence Westbrook dramatically improved under Tubby. In Al Nolen's first three seasons his turnovers went down while his assists, points, steals and shooting percentages all went up.
To further illustrate my point that I believe Tubby's players generally improve, I point you to this analysis on college coach's recruiting and player development. This is a very interesting read and it ranks Tubby Smith as the 16th best college basketball coach when it comes to player development. That is ahead of guys like Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo and Roy Williams (those just happen to recruit better players to begin with). The formula takes a look at 10 years' worth of data to see how players have progressed (offensively) over four years compared to the average improvement one would expect just from aging.
Ultimately I believe that this area of coaching largely falls on the players anyway. Coaches can work with Rodney Williams on his jump shot till they are blue in the face, but he is the one who needs to spend an offseason shooting thousands of jumpshots to see it pay dividends. As one who coached for several seasons, some players improve over time and others do not. The ones who do not, usually are getting in their own way. The point is, there is not a systemic problem of players not getting better under Tubby Smith and his staff.
Moving on to my next criticism of the critics. This one is a bit more grey to me so I recognize that I am opening myself up to some criticism here. But there is this notion that the University of Minnesota has historically been a great basketball powerhouse. That this level of mediocrity we are seeing is unacceptable for a program or our stature. Unfortunately this level of mediocrity is exactly where our program has been for decades.
Truth is we have always been a mediocre program with a couple seasons of very good teams. Further truth is that all but one of those seasons of national (or even Big Ten) relevance were done with various levels of breaking NCAA rules. In 40 years we have exactly 3 Big Ten championships. One of those does not count and another was under Musselman's tenure of NCAA rule breaking. Officially we have a Big Ten win percentage of .426 since Musselman's first season. Tubby isn't exceeding those numbers, his .425 win% is right at the same level.
This is not to say we should accept mediocrity and be happy with NIT bids. We should not. But there is a reality that breaking out of mediocrity into a consistent winner is challenging. Sometimes it takes patience. Changing coaches quickly and stunts program growth and perpetuates the cycle.
Tubby has not been the savior we thought he might be. The program is struggling but it is not as though he has accomplished nothing. He took over a program that had 22 losses the prior year and turned them into a 20-win team in his first year. This program has never been to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments, I would argue that injuries alone has prevented him from taking us to four consecutive NCAAs (Nolen in 2011 and Mbakwe in 2012). We have had some major wins over highly ranked teams and often been a competitive team that just can't quite get over the hump.
This year in particular hasn't really been all that bad, considering the circumstances. When Mbakwe was lost for the season and the Gophers stumbled to 0-4 to start the Big Ten season there was lamenting that this team would be lucky to win a Big Ten game or two. Well they have done significantly more than that by beating some good teams and being at the very least competitive in just about every game played. They are playing much better defensively than they were in Dec and early Jan. Are they going to make the NCAA Tournament? Not likely, but where do you think Northwestern would be without Shurna? Wisconsin without Jordan Taylor? This team has battled back and fought through similar adversity to what last year's team faced and folded.
There are a number of issues that I do not want to completely ignore. Some are directly in the head coach's control and others are not. There are plenty of valid criticisms of the current staff. But I also think it is so very easy to be a fan sometimes. It is very easy to point out the team's flaws and come up with the simple solution. But I can guarantee you that the solution is never as easy as it seems to those of us with a keyboard and a virtual water-cooler. Leading a BCS level basketball program is complicated. So what am I getting at? I'll go to a very recent comment from regular at The Daily Gopher...
All too quickly within a fanbase the answer becomes to change coaches. I am a firm believer in being patient (usually I'm too patient, maybe that is the case now) with coaches of our favorite teams. But changing coaches is just as easily the wrong answer as it is the right. There are numerous examples of coaches who were successful at lower level programs, moved to a BCS program hungry and ready to continue their level of success only to plateau or worse at the higher level. Just off the top of my head Dan Monson, Greg McDermott and Todd Lickliter come to mind. Regardless of the level even when you achieve success, sustaining it is even harder. Ben Howland went to three consecutive Final Four just a few years ago, he's now on the hotseat at UCLA. Jim Boheim took 11 years to get to a Final Four, then it took him nine more to return! Chris Lowry at Southern Illinois took the Salukis to four straight NCAA Tournaments out of the Missouri Valley Conference., including a 4-seed in 2007. He could have had just about any available job but he chose to stay and has been sub .500 ever since. Sustaining success is hard.
While I want to see more wins, I do not believe we are seeing egregious errors that are insurmountable. I am not seeing a program that is years away from competing at a higher level. I am not seeing a program that is lamenting at the bottom of the conference year after year. There has been some mistakes made, some back luck along the way and a head coach who is turning people off with his lengthy list of excuses; none of which involve him. But this is not a program that is in a tailspin.
Am I convinced that a Big Ten championship is on the horizon? No, unfortunately my expectations have been lowered. But I still believe that our chances of breaking out of this current funk of mediocrity are still greater with Tubby Smith than they would be by hiring a new coach. A brand new coach will bring enthusiasm and optimism but it is a flip of the coin as to whether or not he'll be successful. There are times when moving on to a new coaching staff is the right move. I do not think we are there yet.