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Gopher Basketball Coaching Search Candidate Profile: The Case for Utah State’s Craig Smith

Utah State’s Craig Smith is a candidate for the Minnesota job, here’s what makes him a good fit.

NCAA Basketball: South Dakota at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Richard Pitino Era has ended after eight seasons. After being hired by the previous athletic director, Mark Coyle has decided to move in a new direction with the coach that he prefers to run his basketball program. Who will that be? Here is a look at one potential replacement.

First up in the series of candidates is Craig Smith.

Craig Smith

Current Job: Head Coach at Utah State
Tenure: 3 seasons, 4 seasons at South Dakota prior to Utah St
Age: 48
Record: 153-79 (.659)
Conference Titles: 2 regular season titles (1 tied) and 2 tournament titles
NCAA Tournament Appearances: 3

Accomplishments

What stands out for Smith is that he has taken a program like Utah State to the NCAA Tournament in 3 consecutive seasons. Now, he wasn’t taking over a program that was at rock-bottom, the Aggies were right around .500 for the previous few seasons. But nonetheless, he has taken Utah State to the NCAA Tournament in 3 consecutive seasons. A feat not seen at Minnesota since...never.

While coaching in the competitive Mountain West, Smith has played right with a couple of the higher profile teams to come out of that conference over the last few years.

The 2018-19 Nevada team was led by Eric Musselman and was often ranked throughout that season. Smith’s Aggies finished tied for 1st and won that season’s conference tournament.

The 2019-20 San Diego State Aztecs were also consistently ranked (highly) and finished 17-1 that season in the MWC. It was Smith’s Aggies who beat them in the MCW Tourney championship game to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament that never happened.

While at South Dakota, Smith took 2 years to rebuild before going 12-4 and 11-3 in his final two seasons, with 1 conference regular season title.

KenPom Profile

When looking at potential coaching candidates, I ALWAYS look at their KenPom coaching profile. The goal here is to look for patterns. Over time, what areas do their teams consistently excel in. It isn’t perfect, but it certainly gives an indication as to what this coach emphasizes and what his systems generally produce.

KenPom.com

What do we see here? The first thing I see is that Smith’s teams typically are good at defensive rebounding and as his teams got better, they were usually pretty good with their defensive efficiency.

Now, this KenPom overview is not perfect, much of this depends on the personnel you have at the time. Look at how low their offensive turnover rate was at South Dakota compared to struggling with turnovers at Utah. This may very well be due to the personnel he had on those respective teams.

Looking a little deeper, his teams tended to have a strong post player that the ball ran through and then 1 or 2 guards who shot very well. But his teams’ overall three point shooting was not always particularly strong.

Career Path

The path for Smith is one that comes down the Tim Miles coaching tree. After graduating from North Dakota, Smith took an assistant coaching job at Mayville State for one season. That one season was working for Miles. He then left to get his masters at Northern State, was an assistant at Minot State for three years before reuniting with Miles at North Dakota State as that staff navigated the school’s transition from DII to DI.

After 3 seasons with the Bison, Smith left for Mayville State to become their head coach. The year prior Mayville had won just 1 game. Smith’s first year saw 17 wins and a berth in the NAIA playoffs. By his third season leading the Comets they made their third straight NAIA playoffs and that team finished as national runner-ups.

He then re-reunited with Miles at Colorado State, following him to Nebraska before getting the South Dakota job.

Why is He a Good Fit

Smith fits the Duck-Duck-Grey-Duck criteria for Gopher fans. Growing up in Stephen, MN and spending most of his coaching career in the upper-midwest makes him “one of us.” Should Smith show some sustained success as the Gopher’s head coach, there is little reason to think that he’ll ever leave (which is an irrational fear anyway).

What I like about Smith is that he has consistently won at both of his stops. Winning conference titles and getting to the NCAA Tournament. Offensively I have really liked how his teams move without the ball, utilize their big man and have a couple elite shooters.

Defensively his teams are “good” and I drool over how they consistently are ending possessions with a defensive rebound.

Furthermore, remember when Nebraska under Tim Miles, made the NCAA Tournament in 2014? That team had just one senior and was returning the vast majority of their production for the 2015 season. The hype machine was rolling hard for Nebraska (BASKETBALL!) heading into the 2014-15 season. Next year team went 13-18 (5-13). Besides the one senior, do you know who that program lost following the 2014 NCAA Tourney? That is when Smith left to be the South Dakota Coyotes head coach. I’m not sayin, I’m just sayin.

Recruiting? There really isn’t any hard evidence on how great Smith is as a recruiter. Scouring the recruiting websites, Smith does have a reputation as working hard on the recruiting trail. He most certainly has established recruiting relationships in Minnesota and he has had some recent success recruiting internationally. Without a “big name” having been recruited, it’s hard to get too excited about Smith’s recruiting. But there’s no reason to think that he can’t recruit either. This is an area to wait and see on.

TDG Analysis

Smith is a very realistic candidate. He has shown success as a head coach twice at the D1 level and another great run in the NAIA. Tactically, I love Smith as the next head coach. He’s been on my radar since his time at South Dakota and has only shown more while at Utah State.

He is also a candidate for the Utah job and seems to be destined for a Power5 job. Why not Minnesota?

There are a couple “home run hires” that the Gophers could make, which really don’t seem very realistic. Should those not come to fruition, I would be thrilled with Smith.