MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Tubby Smith's turnaround of the Minnesota
program has reached an apparent limit, at least for this season.
The Gophers, though vastly improved, haven't been able to get
out of the middle of the Big Ten race, and the passive
personalities of some of their players could be part of the
Defense and rebounding are culprits, too, but Smith has found
himself wondering why the effort and attitude he's been pleased
with in practice has not translated to more success in games.
He inherited a roster without depth or heralded recruits, but
Minnesota in January was right there with the conference's best -
losing by six points or less to Michigan State twice and Indiana.
"Good teams, they'll take certain things away from you," Smith
said, "so you've got to find somebody that's aggressive to want to
Having won 20 games or more for 14 consecutive years, a
now-tenuous streak, Smith has high expectations for his teams.
Despite the talent differential between the current Gophers and his
previous squads at Kentucky, he's been consistently blunt in his
public assessments of players since taking the job here.
"A miracle," Smith said straightfaced, before smiling and
insisting he was kidding when asked what it would take for
Minnesota (15-8, 5-6 Big Ten) to make the NCAA tournament.
Seniors Dan Coleman, Lawrence McKenzie and Spencer Tollackson
have been the three leading scorers for the Gophers over the past
two seasons, but the trio has also been notably inconsistent.
Tollackson is the only on-court emotional leader the team has,
Smith said, but he is prone to sloppiness and defensive lapses.
McKenzie is the best about being aggressive with the ball and
pursuing the big shot in the clutch, but his offensive production
has disappeared for long stretches of several games. Coleman is
arguably Minnesota's most gifted player, but he too often settles
for outside jump shots and doesn't attack the basket like he could.
"They've got to have a great finish. They really do. If we're
going to be able to do anything and achieve our goals, they've got
to have a great finish. Which means they've got to pick it up from
a leadership standpoint and from a defensive standpoint," Smith
Smith accepted responsibility for not recognizing earlier some
of his team's flaws, namely the lack of on-court leadership and
go-to shooter down the stretch.
"You either recruit a guy that has those instincts and those
traits of being aggressive, or you run a play to get a shot for a
certain guy, do more set plays in that situation," Smith said.
The Gophers have been beaten badly at home twice this month, to
15th-ranked Wisconsin and on Tuesday by 24 points to struggling
Illinois. That was a big blow, only the second time this season
they've lost to an opponent with a record that's currently worse
than theirs and the first such loss in the conference.
So they'll march into Madison on Saturday for a rematch against
the Badgers, without much to lose or much confidence. Building a
lead or at least staying in the game during the first 10 minutes
will be the important part.
"The main thing that you have to do is just to hold each and
every guy accountable for their own game and their own actions,"
Tollackson said, "and if everybody can do their part then
hopefully that can translate into all five guys on the court doing
what they need to do and hopefully spin that in the right
With an upset or two over the next month and a couple of wins in
the Big Ten tournament, the Gophers would put themselves in
contention for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
They haven't been eliminated yet.
"We still have games ahead. We still have to play Indiana
again. We have Wisconsin. We get a couple of wins summed up now,
and we're right back in that run," McKenzie said. "You can't
never give up hope. We're definitely, definitely not giving up."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)