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Gopher Basketball: A Program at a Crossroad

10/30/2012, 7:45am CDT
By Rob Litt

Will season 6 finally be Tubby's breakthrough? Or will it be more of the same at the U?

As Tubby shows, this program's fortunes can either go up or down due to the critical season ahead.

A year ago I wrote that the Gophers 2011-2012 season was the most critical in decades. Tubby Smith and the U desperately needed a breakthrough regular-season and post-season run that mattered. A season-ending injury to Trevor Mbakwe and a redshirt year for Mo Walker changed the make-up of the roster and the team stumbled through yet another disappointing regular season, posting a second straight 6-12 Big Ten record. This put the Gophers clearly on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday, which was made a tad more palatable by a fun NIT finals run which included a few exciting wins spurred by the emergence of freshman Andre Hollins and aggressive leadership from Rodney Williams. But at the end of the day, it's an NIT run and we didn't hire Tubby Smith to win games in March at La Salle and Middle Tennessee State. We hired him to win games that matter in March, something he hasn't done since his arrival in Dinkytown.

So here we are again, facing many of the same story-lines in the 2012-2013 season that we did a year ago. In some aspects, little has changed:

  • Tubby still hasn't had a breakthrough season
  • No significant progress on the practice facility and we fall another year behind in the growing facility arms race
  • Off the court drama is as prevalent as it has been the last few years
  • No in-state recruits have stepped up and committed their collegiate future to the U

That being said, a few significant changes have been made in the Gopher basketball landscape:

  • Joel Maturi is out, and Norwood Teague is the new Gopher AD
  • Tubby got his contract extension
  • The new ticket policy is in place
  • Teague handled the discipline of Gophers assistant Saul Smith. Be it positive or negative, this will no doubt shape the long-term relationship of Tubby and Teague

With that as the table setting, there are 5 key story-lines that will have a dramatic impact on the future of the Tubby Smith era at Minnesota.

1. What will Tubby do with this loaded roster?

Reason for Optimsim: I firmly believe that this is the most talented Gopher roster on paper since the Final Four run in 1997. Now, this current team isn't nearly as talented as that team was, but we have not had a team as talented as this team since then. We have a great blend of size, depth, experience, youth and athleticism. We have three guys that have the potential to get drafted in the NBA. We have two dynamic seniors that create tough match-up problems for opposing teams. We have a dynamic guard that showed significant improvement down the stretch last season. We have two young big men who have both been in the program for two full years and complement one another well. And we have depth at every position. While the Big Ten is loaded this year and the non-conference schedule is set up to be the most challenging in the Tubby era, on paper this team belongs in the NCAA Tournament and anything less is unacceptable.

Reason for Concern: Despite the talent and depth, there are still some critical concerns. How will Trevor Mbakwe and Mo Walker return from their injuries? Will Trevor be as explosive as before? Can he play without hesitation or concern for a reoccurring injury? We haven't seen Walker in a real game in almost two years. Can he stay healthy for a full season and show fans the clear talent he briefly showed us two years ago? How does Tubby handle the roster options? Do we go small and athletic and put Trevor at the 5? Or do we jam the lane with size and play Elliot or Mo next to Trevor? If we do the latter, does Rodney take a step back in production and aggression? Are the Hollins boys, Welch and Ellenson enough of an outside threat?

2. Off-court drama

Reason for Optimism: Well, as I write this, we've been drama-free for over a week, so we're making progress!

Reason for Concern: We couldn't even make it to the Gopher media day before the off-the-court drama started. Then we couldn't make it to the first exhibition game before another off-the-court issue developed. Enough is enough. Tubby's Big Ten record the last two seasons is enough to get some coaches in uncomfortable territory with their bosses, but when you throw in the consistent drum beat of arrests, transfers, etc., it adds pressure to producing results on the court.

3. Recruiting

Reason for Optimism: The best off-the-court development that this program has the potential to capitalize on is with the loaded in-state recruiting classes over the next few years in Minnesota. Whether one likes the recruiting "game" or not, recruiting is the lifeblood of a program. The last two kids Tubby signed (Buggs and Ellenson) and the two kids slated to sign in November (Ellis and Foster) are solid out-of-state additions all with offers similar to the U. But none of those four have the potential to be immediate program changers like members of Minnesota's prep scene over the next few years have the potential (underscore potential) to do. It could be argued that the 2014 and 2015 Minnesota classes could produce the highest collection of recruits in state history. A Sweet 16 run this year followed up by a great recruiting class next year would really energize this program.

Reason for Concern: With highly ranked in-state kids comes pressure to keep them at Minnesota. The recruitment of Tyus Jones and Rashad Vaughn specifically have received a tremendous amount of interest from fans and media members and as they start to make college decisions, it will receive a significant amount of coverage. Too much? Perhaps. But it's undeniable that fans, media, boosters and athletic directors follow recruiting as a benchmark on a programs strength, perception and momentum. Going 0-fer with Minnesota's three highest rated 2014 recruits will not send a good message.

4. New boss

Reason for Optimism: A new boss often provides a clean slate of sorts. Certainly Norwood Teague comes to the U with a perception of Tubby Smith but that could be a good thing. It appears as if the national perception of Tubby is greater at this point than the local one. It's evident from the national media, coaches comments about him and the respect he garners around the country, and that's a good thing. Teague can look at issues and problems with a fresh perspective, and can look at Tubby's future from a "from here on out" philosophy. Teague didn't have to sit in the stands for back-to-back 6-12 seasons and gets to view the program and Tubby with a loaded roster expected to make The Tourney in his first year. Any issues or frustrations that Tubby may have had with Maturi on the lack of progress with the practice facility or the way the Jimmy Williams/Mbakwe/Royce situations were handled are now in the past. That can only be a positive for the program.

Reason for Concern: Teague significantly raised his profile as an AD thanks to one man, Shaka Smart. VCU and Smart provided one of the biggest story-lines in college basketball each of the last two years. Smart is considered a rising star in college basketball and is viewed as a fun coach to play for who engages with recruits and boosters alike. Teague managed to keep Smart at VCU the last two seasons despite him being one of the hottest names in the game. So Teague's used to a young, high-energy type of coach reporting to him. Teague very well may like the fact that his new HC has a national championship ring on his finger, but he may also want someone who connects with stakeholders differently. Most leaders also want to put their stamp on a program at some point. This could come in the form of significant facility announcements or it could come in the form of hiring and firing coaches. Teague has three opportunities at the U for a high profile coaching move and two don't appear an option right now. Jerry Kill is only in his second year of a seven-year deal and significant rebuilding process and he's not going anywhere. Don Lucia has the Gophers program back where it belongs near the top of college hockey. So that leaves Tubby Smith as the only other high profile move that Teague could make. Teague had to have signed off on Tubby's new contract extension so that takes the extension drama off the table which is nice. The other caveat that could challenge the Teague/Tubby relationship is Teague's handling of Saul's DUI suspension. Whether Tubby agreed with how it was handled or not it certainly provided a unique way for Teague adn Tubby to get to know one another!

5. Six years in, how do things look?

Reason for Optimism: Tubby has a very good opportunity to do something that this program hasn't done since 1997, win an NCAA Tourney game. And with this roster, he has the potential to do something this program has only done once in more than 20 years - advance to the second weekend of the Tournament. Assuming we make the Tournament this year, Tubby will have taken the Gophers to the NCAA Tournament 3 of the last 5 years. That's not bad considering our programs history. If Teague can deliver on the promise of his fundraising prowess, we can hopefully announce definitive plans for the much-needed practice facility this year and really build some momentum. If Tubby delivers on the court and in recruiting and if Teague delivers off the court with fundraising and significant facility upgrades, we can be happy with the progress of the last six years and look forward to Tubby finishing his career at the U with an even better outlook for the next six.

Reason for Concern: It will be hard to call the Tubby Smith era a success after six years if we can't finish in the top half of the conference or win an NCAA Tournament game. Crazy issues or not on and off the court, he has to produce more than he has. If this season doesn't go as it can (both on the court and in recruiting), it will be hard to imagine a scenario that the next six years will be any better.

Any way you look at it, there is so much riding on this season. I'd rather be an optimist and be wrong than a pessimist and be right, and so I anticipate a year from now this program having had a break-through season, a concrete announcement made on the practice facility and at least one of the big three 2014 recruits committed to the U.

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Tag(s): Gopher Basketball