September 13, 2007

the NEW Golden Gopher Era - Part 5

The NEW Golden Gopher Era - Part 5 of 8

What does the hire of Tubby Smith mean to the
2007-08 Golden Gopher basketball team?

Intro - Turning point for Gopher FB and BB
Part 1 - What can we expect in 2007? - FB
Part 2 - What can we define as success (short term) - FB
Part 3 - How quickly can we win a Big Ten title? - FB
Part 4 - What are the long term expectations for success? - FB

And I'm finally back on this brilliant 8 part series. I know that football just started, but basketball is just around the corner my friends. We are just a month away from the October 15th official NCAA start date. I can't tell you how excited I am for this basketball season. Gopher Nation was founded by Tim Brewster. But while GN was learning to walk and talk many of us were patiently waiting to see what rabbit Joel Maturi was going to pull out of his basketball coach hat. The likely scenarios included names like Rick Majerus, Chris Lowery (SoIll), a handful of other Mid Major coaches and the long shot was considered to be MN alum Flip Saunders. What actually transpired took absolutely everyone by surprise. Maturi lured a proven winner away from one of the top 5 basketball jobs in the country to Minnesota.

How he did it and Tubby's reasons for leaving Kentucky are irrelevant. What is important is that we now have a head coach with credibility and a proven track record that he has won wherever he has been. This particular post is centered on the immediate future.

What does the hire of Tubby Smith mean to the 2007-08 Golden Gopher basketball team?

I think I am in the minority here but I honestly think this team can win and win now. I would argue that Dan Monson was just not capable of winning basketball games regardless of his team's talent level. Tubby Smith is the antithesis of that, I think he can win regardless of the level of talent. But as an added bonus Tubby actually has some (and I mean only some) talent on this team.

Let me outline why Tubby can win in his first season leading the Golden Gophers...

***This team has some talent. I know that this is not a deep team filled with all conference caliber players at every position. But I firmly believe that there are 4 players who have legitimate Big Ten talent on this team. Lawrence McKenzie at a guard, Brandon Smith at SF, Dan Coleman at PF and Spencer Tollackson at C. I realize that is only 4 players while most B10 teams have a roster full of players who belong in the B10. Coleman and Tollackson have proven that they can compete with the best in this league. And McKenzie can be one of the hardest players to guard in the conference and is a top 10 scorer. I don't intend to break down every player on the roster but the trio of McKenzie/Coleman/Tollackson is good enough to win in the B10 this year. If guys like Smith, true freshman Hoffarber, Abu-Shamala and Damien Johnson can step up and contribute this team will surprise many (just not me).

***This team will play better together. Having some talent is one thing, but that doesn't always equate into wins. Every single season Dan Monson coached the Gophers they have always struggled to score. Even when we had dominant individual scorers like Joel Przybilla, Rick Rickert, Kris Humphries or Vincent Grier we made scoring as a team very difficult.

My biggest criticism of Monson on the court was that his teams never played well together and this was very clear on the offensive end (defensive end too, but that was helped by Molinari). There was very little purposeful movement on the court and it was an offense that required someone to make an athletic 1-on-1 move in order to score. I can't count all the times there were 2 passes then give the ball to Grier or Rickert or Humphries and everyone watch him try to score.

A good offense will have movement and action with the intent to put the defense in a compromising position then you are able to get open shots or easy baskets because of your movement. When you have this then having players who can score on their own (ala Vincent Grier) is just a bonus and you become a dangerous team.

Unfortunately we never saw this and we witnessed teams that struggled to score (averaged 66.2 ppg the last 4 seasons) especially when it counted. Teams need to be taught HOW to play together and then they need a system that will ALLOW them to do so. I believe we will have this with Tubby. Most importantly he will teach these guys how to be basketball players. How to make better decisions and how to move with or without the ball that will benefit all 5 guys on the floor. When to get the ball into the post and when to take the ball down the middle. How to set a great screen for your teammate and when to give up your good shot for an even better shot. This is what guys like McKenzie and Brandon Smith will greatly benefit from. You will see this team play together they will use each other to collectively score.

***Basketball is a coaches game. To a greater extent than any other sport basketball is a coaches game. Primarily in the offseason and practice time a great coach can teach a group of less talented individuals to play better as a team and beat an opponent with more talent. Football coaches win games recruiting and play calling during games. Basketball coaches earn their paychecks in practice!

I expect that Tubby will get much more out of this current group than Monson was ever capable.
  • Tollackson will be a better leader
  • Coleman will be a better rebounder
  • McKenzie will be a better decision maker
  • Smith will learn to use his incredible skills within a system and become a basketball player
  • Damien Johnson will also learn to be a basketball player not an athlete
Everyone on the team will be smarter and play better together on both ends of the floor.

***Last season was the perfect storm. I went into last season with high hopes as well but it seems as though everything that could go wrong did (see Michigan football 2007!).
  • Iowa State - LOSS, this was the breaking point of the season. The Gophers looked in control with a 10 point 2nd half lead that quickly vanished and they lost a game that felt like a sure win.
  • Old Spice Classic - 2 days after the Iowa Stat game and there was clearly a hangover from that bitter loss. Minnesota inexcusably lost to Marist, followed by a loss to a very good S. Ill team then was disinterested in playing Montana and lost that one as well.
  • Monson resigns - this of course leaves the team in chaos mode and Molinari does his best to re-instate sanity.
  • Tollackson gets injured - for a team that had trouble rebounding and scoring, losing their best rebounder and most reliable scorer guaranteed losses while Tollackson was out.
  • 5 straight conference losses - more importantly scored over 50 only once (52).
  • Lost all interest - as the hit the last month it was apparent that this team was ready to be done and move on to the next season. They finished with a brilliant stretch of 9 straight losses and only 2 were within 10 points (-2 to Michigan and -9 to Michigan).
A couple things went wrong, Monson resigned, Tollackson was injured and the season fell to pieces. I don't expect these things to happen with Tubby leading. Obviously injuries are possible but I expect this team will have an understanding of mental toughness and the tenacity to compete regardless of the situation.

***What does this all mean?
  • Worst Case Scenario - injuries happen, McKenzie hates Tubby and quits and this team finishes with 10 wins.
  • Minimum Expectations - They struggle early, get a couple nice wins along the way and finish as a bubble team on Selection Sunday. Maybe we pack our bags for the NIT maybe we get that last Big Ten bid, but at least we are in the conversation for the real tournament.
  • Best Case Scenario - Every non-conference game is winable but lets say best case is 10-2. The Big Ten is likely down from last season and it is ripe for a team like Minnesota to make up some ground so we finish with 11-7 finishing 5th in conference. This gives us 21 wins and an 8 seed in the tournament. We win our first game then lose in OT to the #1 seed.
Am I crazy? Maybe. This team obviously has a lot of question marks and many reasons to doubt. Who will play PG? Is there a scenario where Abu-Shamala doesn't actually have to play. Can Hoffarber come in an contribute as a freshman? I don't know but I know Tubby Smith has won at every school he has been at. 20 wins in 13 of 15 seasons is impressive and hard to argue against (unless you are a Wildcat fan). I don't think he'll have to sell his soul to the Devil to hit 20 this year. It will be tough but I think he and this team is capable.

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