The Tubby Smith era has been a trying and turbulent time in Gopher Nation. It's had its peaks and definitely had its valleys. He brought us back from the dark days of Dan Monson and brought instant gratification with two NCAA Tournament appearances in his first three seasons. The sky was the limit it seemed when Smith started. But injuries, transfers, Royce White's rap career and what felt like every circumstance imaginable got in the way of continued success shortly after that. And, for the most part, it was difficult to tell how much of the struggles past few years have been on account of Smith's coaching ability.
This year seemed like a prime season to judge just how effective Smith is at the helm. He had all of his own recruits on the floor, each of them was healthy, and no one was missing any time due to trials or altercations with security guards. Even when the Gophers again showed signs of yet another meltdown I told myself that I would give it until the end of the season to pass a final judgement on Tubby Smith. After all, it's not exactly fair to write the guy's eulogy with five games and a possible tournament appearance withstanding.
But as the final buzzer rang in Iowa City Sunday afternoon my calm approach to the recent string of stupidity finally boiled over. I'll be honest, it was the ineptitude against the 2-3 zone that did me in, but it was so much more than just a single failure against a conference opponent on the road. It was the realization and verification that Tubby just isn't ever going to get his teams to where they need to be or where the fan base wants it to be. After Monson we had dreams of the Final Four with a championship coach, and initial tournament appearances indicated that better things were surely on the horizon. But the luster of just being at the Big Dance soon wore off, and this year was supposed to be the culmination of all of that waiting during torn ACLs, West Coast exoduses, Royce White YouTube videos and just about any other ridiculous occurrence that prevented Tubby from playing with a full deck. But after the abomination that was Sunday's game it's clear, to me at least, that this about as good as it's going to get with Tubby, and it's not satisfactory.
It's a little odd that I feel this passionately about it considering that as late as Saturday evening I was staunchly defending Tubby in front of some friends and imploring that they let the season play out. "Let's not let jump to conclusions," I said. "Who else could even be out there?" I rhetorically asked.
Even in the face of consecutive meltdowns the past two seasons I've been in Tubby's camp. I thought he was unfairly criticized for things out of his control like injuries, transfers and just plain bad luck. How can you hold a guy's feet to the fire when Trevor Mbakwe tears his ACL, for instance? How can you fault him for losing Devoe Joseph to an Oregon transfer? I thought he was doing good things when he had a full team of healthy players and thought he offered Minnesota the best chance to win a lot of games. That is, until halftime on Sunday in Iowa City. Even before then I was cautioning that we need to let this season play out and see what he's capable of. But it's just not possible to look at his performance objectively any longer.
This season was the one I've been intent on judging him. He'd underachieved in past years and missed the tournament. But, again, he wasn't playing with a full deck in my eyes and I thought he did good things at the end of the 2012 season. This year he had a dominant senior frontcourt and strong starting guards. He had a talented team that was capable of doing damage, which meant it was finally put up or shut up time. And for the first two and half months of the year it was definitely a "put up" performance.
But the destruction at the hands of the Iowa Hawkeyes, a solid but unspectacular team, has cemented my view of Smith's inability to properly bring this team to where it needs to be. I've had fears that he was overmatched dating back to the first Wisconsin game, and I thought (hoped?) that it was just a blip on the radar. And since then it's been a fairly steady collection of clueless offense, immaturity and a fragile psyche is that so far beyond simple on-court execution that it can only be attributed to a breakdown at the coaching level. Because of that high-level breakdown I'm not confident that this team can ever achieve greater results than what we'll see this season. This is Tubby's most talented team and, should this season continue as it has, they look to be no better than a 7-10 seed in the tournament. A finish like that is simply inexcusable.
Lack of preparation
It's a rash reaction to a team that is isn't playing particularly awful, which might seem odd. I mean, can you really call for a guy's head when he leads his team to the tournament and has his best season to date? When you consider the season relative to past performances at the beginning of his tenure and the merely slight improvement, then yes. And while there are a bevy of problems facing this team, almost all of them trace back to Tubby's consistently unprepared offensive schemes. This isn't about recruiting, this isn't about the lack of a practice facility. This is about being unable to get the most from a team as a head coach.
This, first and foremost, is the biggest gripe that comes with Tubby. He's a defense-first coach and he does that well. The problems come when the Gophers have the ball and are the biggest reason the Gophers have fallen on such hard times. They simply aren't prepared to face a defense that puts them out of their comfort zone. That was put on full display against Iowa's zone defense yesterday. Minnesota jumped out to a 21-5 lead. They were smoking the Hawkeyes. Then Fran McCaffery deployed his Game Genie, entered a cheat code, and started using the magical 2-3 zone. It was over from there. Minnesota hadn't the faintest idea how to attack it, how to break it down, even how to get started approaching it. The zone defense came out and Minnesota shut down. In fact, they barely even scored the rest of the game. That type of breakdown is not on the players; that failure falls squarely on the shoulders of the coach for the inability to properly prepare them to face a fairly ordinary defense.
So what? It's one game, right? Wrong. This has become a frightening pattern - the inability of the Gophers to react to changes in the game or even flat out prepare for it. For five years the Northwestern 1-3-1 zone has utterly stumped Tubby Smith. It's stupefying, not to mention painful to watch. And, while it's sometimes effective as a gimmick against other teams, Minnesota just can't solve it. They haven't won at Northwestern since 2008. Iowa is fine with the 1-3-1 zone, they know what to do. The Wildcats don't even use it against Illinois because it's been so ineffective. But there are the good ol' Gophers and their clueless offense, where it works like a charm.
Here's my point, and I hope I can clearly convey this so it doesn't seem too knee-jerk: Tubby Smith has now shown time and time again that he is incapable of properly preparing his teams to consistently execute a successful offense against good teams. In short, he is consistently unprepared and it shows far too often. It's no longer a matter of simply waiting to see if he can somehow figure it out and get into a groove. He has failed to show that he can teach his players to do things like attack a 2-3 zone, run an offense that scores points consistently, or properly utilize its strengths effectively and get the job done.And it gotten to the point that it's a liability on the court. The Gophers are now losing because of their offense. It's not about one game, it's about a pattern of ineptitude. And if this is the peak of his ability, with his best team to date, it's time to consider other options.
Firing a coach and moving on is not an easy decision. In fact, it sucks. Teams aren't guaranteed an improvement, there is a whole lot of instability, and the payback is not quick, if it happens at all. With that said, there are some possible counterarguments:
All things considered, Tubby is having his best season of his tenure
After making a splash and bringing the Gophers back to the NCAA Tournament in consecutive years, Smith has failed to return to the real postseason for two years now, with considerable talent at his disposal. That said, barring a meltdown this season (read: losses to Penn State and Nebraska), then the Gophers will likely enter the NCAA Tournament with a higher seed than they ever have under Smith. Can you really fire a guy who is on the upswing?
The short answer is yes, as illogical as it might seem. Look, this is far and away Tubby's most talented team. A team that, with even a slight clue of how to execute a half-court offense, should be in the top third of the Big Ten this year. But, they're not. Next year doesn't get any better talent wise, meaning that this is likely the peak for Minnesota and Tubby for awhile. Is this what Gophers fans should be happy with? A coach that finishes as a 9-seed with top-20 talent? Sure, it's his best season to date, but it's all relative. If he's incapable of getting this particular team to properly utilize its talent, then what hope do we have when he needs to squeeze more ability out of a team that doesn't quite have it? It's been a pattern of coaching DOWN teams recently; not up. And if the Gophers are going to make the tournament in spite of his abilities, then what can we possibly expect down the road?
It's easy to fire a coach, but who do you expect to replace him?
Fans often fall into the trap of thinking that teams can just go to Coaches 'R' Us and grab someone whenever they feel like it. Finding a talented coach looking for a new job isn't all that simple, and there's no guarantee that a new coach will have any sort of positive impact. It's a valid concern, but one that I don't think holds all that much water when you take a closer look. To my point above, Tubby is underachieving with a stellar group of players and by all accounts is going to enter the postseason with a team competing below expectations. And it's hard to be content with where they're likely to finish. Considering the expectations going into this season that's something I'm not okay with, and certainly don't have any confidence that he can perform magic with a team next year that is losing it's talented senior frontcourt. If you don't have confidence in your coach then what's the point? Lack of results combined with lack of confidence means that it's time for a change. Especially after six seasons that haven't shown a whole lot of growth.
Look, being in the NCAA Tournament is a big deal and I'm excited for the Gophers to (probably) be there. But at this point it's not enough to be an 8-seed. It's not enough to limp into the postseason. We've done this a couple of times before -- it's not getting the job done and we should demand more. Really, what's the difference between limping into the tournament as a low-seed and missing it altogether when your aspirations are so much higher? If you have a coach like Tubby where you know exactly what you're getting then my point is that we're not missing a whole lot. If his peak with this team is coming in as an under-seeded at-large participant then we've come to a crossroads: accept mediocrity or roll the dice. Bringing in some new coaching blood, then, isn't as much of a risk; the difference between mediocrity and an early tournament exit is increasingly negligible.
But what about the 2014 recruiting class?
This is probably the strongest counterargument to showing Tubby the door. For those not really into the Minnesota recruiting scene the 2014 high school class in Minnesota is highly sought after. Tyus Jones of Apple Valley is the nation's number one recruit, Rashad Vaughn of Robbinsdale Cooper is also in the top ten. Reid Travis of DeLaSalle is in the top 50. It's a crazy-talented recruiting class that has the potential to propel the Gophers to the next level should they be able to land at least one of them. And Minnesota is still on each of their lists.
Is an unstable program with a new coach the place that a blue chip recruit wants to go? Probably not. But, really, who's to say they are planning on coming here with Tubby at the helm anyways? Tyus Jones, while attainable, is a low-probability. Rashad Vaughn has a good relationship with the Gophers, but also has offers from Kansas, Kentucky and Syracuse. Reid Travis is still trying to decide whether or not he wants to play football for a living. It's a mess of a situation even with Tubby still in place as the head coach. I'd argue that potential recruits shouldn't play a huge role in determining the overall direction of the program from a coaching standpoint. It's not like underachieving from year to year does a whole lot to impress the recruits anyways, does it? And who's to say they wouldn't like the idea of helping revive a program? Again, the muddiness of the situation means it shouldn't be a huge factor in determining Tubby's future and structure of the coaching staff.
So now what?
I fully realize the implications of finding a new head coach and letting a fairly talented one go. Really, the Gophers are in a much better position right now than they were six years ago and Tubby has, at the very least, brought the Gophers into the top half, talent-wise, in the Big Ten. That's nothing to scoff at. But I've grown tired of armchair coaching. I'm tired of second-guessing our own head coach on things as simple as substitution processes. I'm tired of wondering why this team has, for the past several years, looked pathetic in a half-court offense. Their ineptitude in that respect is all coaching, and it's gotten to the point where it's a liability. They are losing games because they don't have a clue on offense. That has to change and Tubby has not proven that he capable of driving that transformation.
If this is the peak then it's time for new leadership. There's something to be said about being content with what you have, and looking forward to 20-win seasons is certainly something to consider. But I'd rather rebuild and have the chance of finding a coach who will bring this program to where we want it to be than settle for mediocre seasons that see us at 8-10 and sneaking into the tournament as a bubble team. Regardless of how the rest of the season turns out, Tubby Smith has proven that he is not that man to elevate the program to that level.