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My candid assessment: Gophers fall short of NCAA Tournament berth

By 2 p.m. today, University of Minnesota basketball fans will know whether their beloved Gophers have beaten Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. Should the Gophers win — which is no lock — the debate about whether they did enough to merit an NCAA Tournament berth will roar on, until the NCAA Selection Committee announces the brackets on Sunday.

The short answer from this non-provincial vantage point: No.

It’s fun to try to guess along with the selection committee, but let’s understand something. Beating Northwestern — a team that has never qualified for the NCAA Tournament, a team that handled the Gophers at full strength and lost while undermanned – might not mean as much to the committee as wishful Gopher fans hope.

When your team loses six of its last nine conference games, goes 5-8 after a 16-1 start, hasn’t won back-to-back games since the end of January and squanders a 12-point lead in blowing its conference finale at home, you’re begging the committee to choose someone else. That’s where the 21-9 Gophers stand.

Minnesota’s signature victories, over No. 5 Louisville in Las Vegas and at Wisconsin, come with conditions. Louisville crossed three time zones to play less than 48 hours after holding off Mississippi in Cincinnati. And Wisconsin, usually tough to beat at the Kohl Center, lost three home games this season and isn’t even ranked.

If the Gophers knock off the Wildcats and surprise No. 6 Michigan State, the quarterfinal opponent, then they’ve got grounds for argument. Until then, they don’t.

Work left to do
“We’ve got to do some work,” Coach Tubby Smith said.

Look: Anyone who considered Smith a miracle worker already realizes he or she expected too much. Smith, finishing his second season, hasn’t been here long enough to recruit his way out of the talent hole left by former coach Dan Monson. The U’s path from mediocrity to excellence will be a good, long slog, no matter how many creampuffs Smith loads on his non-conference schedule.

Tubby Smith
Tubby Smith

Smith may not be a premier sideline X’s and O’s guy, but he knows what the Gophers need to win — rebounding, defense and hustle, the same formula Tom Izzo stresses at Michigan State. Smith’s players play hard, if not always effectively, which is an encouraging step up from the Monson years.

Without a set rotation or a reliable playmaker, the Gophers lack the continuity championship teams thrive on. The disconnect between what Smith demands and what his players give him was evident in last Saturday’s crushing loss to Michigan at Williams Arena. The Gophers, with NCAA Tournament credibility at stake, lost after leading at halftime for just the second time under Smith.

In the final seconds, Smith frantically called timeout just before Lawrence Westbrook launched an apparent game-tying three-pointer. Smith did not trust his players to break down the Wolverines defense without a set play. (If you’ve watched this team much, you know why.) And Westbrook, the only Gopher who can create his own shot, bulled ahead as if he never expected a timeout. It looked awkward, like two outfielders letting a fly ball drop between them.

Wednesday, before the Gophers left for Indianapolis, Smith disputed the notion that upperclassmen Westbrook, Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber are as good as they’re going to be.  Nolen, the inconsistent point guard, and Westbrook, the only Gopher averaging in double figures, will start Thursday after coming off the bench the last two games. All three, Smith said, need to work more on their weaknesses. Apparently that lesson hasn’t gotten through.

“It’s hard to train yourself,” Smith said. “I always equate it to Tiger Woods. He won the Masters, and he changed his swing. You know what I mean?

“Here you’re having some success, we’re 15-1, we’re playing well, but guess what? We’re telling you every day in practice what you have to change, what you have to get better at. You’re got to work on your right hand, you’ve got to work on your left hand, all these things you’ve got to work on.”

And effort, Smith said, isn’t enough. “Sometimes you have to overachieve, and I sometimes don’t think guys understand what that means,” he said. “They think they’re giving it, but they’ve got to go beyond that … Who’s going to come out on top is (the team that can) raise it, and make fewer mistakes.” 

Smith knew schedule provided Gophers’ only shot

Smith defended scheduling so many soft non-conference games as the only way for the Gophers to make the NCAA Tournament. He knew his young team needed time to develop, and correctly anticipated the brutal conference schedule in February — with only two home games out of seven — would not go well.

“We wouldn’t even be in the running, because I knew February was going to be hell,” he said. “We can’t play five games on the road and only two at home in one month with the team we have. You look at the schedule and go, ‘Holy Moses, what is this?’ ” Smith considered a 10-8 conference record realistic, and that’s where the Gophers would have finished had the Michigan game not gotten away.

Still, there is plenty here for Gopher fans to like. Smith brought credibility, dignity and a measure of humility to a job sullied by Clem Haskins not that long ago. We still don’t know how good a recruiter Smith is, or how many players he’ll graduate. But it’s fun to envision a Gopher offense running through an improving Ralph Sampson III in the post.

Publicly, Smith’s support of other U programs has been refreshing. Though he wants a new practice facility and, ultimately, a new arena for the men’s and women’s teams to share, he acknowledges baseball Coach John Anderson’s long-awaited stadium comes first. At the preseason basketball brunch in October, Smith greeted individual media members by talking up the football team, which had not yet begun its swoon. And maybe you’ve seen the commercial Smith did for the U women’s gymnastics team that airs locally.

But the gathering notion that Smith may bolt for a better job is laughable. I’ve covered coaching searches, and most names that come up emanate from three sources far removed from the decision-makers: the media, boosters with visions of grandeur, and opportunistic coaches angling for better contracts from the schools they’re at.

Smith will be 58 in June, and 58-year-olds aren’t in demand in any business no matter how good they are. And why would Smith’s son Brian take a high school coaching job here if he knew Dad and Mom were unhappy and looking around?  Stranger things have happened, but be skeptical of this stuff. Smith has never been a mercenary, and his task here remains unfinished.

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