Wednesday, February 23, 2011
I've taken some time, calmed down, self-medicated, and I'm ready to discuss the Gopher basketball team again. Not specifically the Michigan State game because if we start talking about that I will probably murder all the furniture in my house, but in a more general, "this whole year sucked" compared to "last night sucked" sense. I have so many conflicting emotions about it all - sadness, anger, confusion, anger again, sleepiness, horniness, then depression - that I can't really sort it all out, so let's do it in self-interview fashion. If it helps your visualization techniques you can picture the questioner as Benicio del Toro and the answerer as me without any pants.
Q. There are some pretty legitimate reasons why the Gophers suck now, right?
A. Yes, and that's why it's hard to get too enraged (but make no mistake, I'm still enraged) because it's pretty easy to assign the most blame for this disaster on God/Buddha/Allah/Kali/Tiamat/Merlin, as misguided as that might be. Of course, it all starts with Al Nolen's injury - or perhaps it starts with Devoe Joseph's defection - but in any case the net results is zero point guards, zero depth, and complete disaster. Blake playing the point when he's not remotely suited for the role, with the sweet double whammy of putting the teams only perimeter threat in a position where, given his abilities, it's more difficult to get shots and score. Ralph Sampson playing the three, where no matter how badly he wants to be a perimeter guy, he just doesn't have the skill set. Is he a good perimeter player for a big man? Absolutely. Is a three? Hell mother flipping no. And you have three freshmen that should be playing 20-25 between them playing about 20 minutes each.
I mean, you can trace most of their close losses to an inability to play well at the close of games, and so much of that starts with a competent lead guard. Michigan State had Kalin Lucas last night. Penn State beat the Gophers because Talor Battle made plays. Hell, Wisconsin just barely beat Michigan, but they did because they had Jordan Taylor out there making plays (and a little luck) just as he did against Purdue. The Gophers don't have that. Instead they have players who travel unguarded on a final possession, players who panic at the first sign of a trap, and an inability to execute half-court plays at the end of the game because the only player good enough to get the ball to a shooter is the shooter himself, and passing to yourself is traveling. Unfortunately.
This game should have been a battle between two snake-bitten and underachieving teams. Hell, Tubby Smith and Tom Izzo could have traded war stories like Captain Quint and Hooper on the Orca. Instead of stories about a big Chinese fella in an arm-wrestling contest and a thresher shark's tail, they could have discussed player defections, suspensions, and injured players. But instead it was more like Tubby was Chief Brody, just sitting there with stupid smile on his face. Or that dumb Alex kid who paddles out too far on his gay little raft.
In any case, yes, there are plenty of easy excuses as to why this team has underachieved, should you choose to latch on to them.
Q. Doesn't it seem like some of these guys should be better though?
A. And really, here is my biggest issue. I could excuse a bad season if it wasn't playing out in this particular way. I mean, was every recruiting service wrong about some of these guys or is the seeming lack of development on far too many players indicative a real problem with the way they're taught? Some of these guys were major, big-time recruits, but I'm not seeing the development. I mean, Chief Brody was afraid of water and stayed in the car on the ferry ride over to Amity Island from the mainland in the beginning, but ended up the badass who killed the crap out of the shark - where's that kind of development here? Was Sampson destined to fall in love with his perimeter game and shrink in big spots whether he was a Gopher or a Terrapin? Would Colton Iverson be nothing more than a stronger, heavier version of the same gangly, elbow-y, pasty tornado if Billy Donovan was in charge of him instead of Tubby? What about Rodney Williams lack of development? He's exactly like last year - flashes of potential sandwiched in between long stretches of invisibility. Would he be stuck in this holding pattern of mediocrity if he had ended up at Kansas or UCONN? Obviously I don't have a flux capacitor nor any plutonium so I can't generate 1.21 gigawatts to travel to an alternate universe so I don't know the answer to these questions, but it bugs the shit out of me that we aren't talking one guy, or even two, but we're talking three. Throw Devoe in if you want. Like, literally you can throw him into the shark-invested waters off Cable Junction near Amity Island if you want.
Then there's the inability to draw up anything resembling an effective play out of a timeout, something I did mention was harder without a true point guard, but it was an issue back when Nolen was still around and has just gotten worse. Or the way the freshmen seem to constantly freeze in nearly every high leverage game situation - either freeze or go balls out, either way it's a bad choice. Or the random substitution patterns and inability to stick to anything resembling a consistent rotation - granted that's suddenly become less of an issue this year. The mass defections of quality players - even excepting Paul Carter that's still far too many transfers in two years. How about, due to those transfers, there isn't a viable starting point guard on the roster outside of Nolen, and there isn't one on the roster next year. Maverick Ahanmisi's upside is a good back-up, and, for all the talk that Andre Hollins is going to be the PG next year, he's 1. a freshman and 2. playing SG in high school. It's got disaster written all over it (not him, but the sitch).
Perhaps my biggest complaint is that I thought we'd be farther, here. This is year 4, and although the team is in better shape than when he first arrived, you don't really hire Tubby Smith to get your program back to mediocrity - that's why you hire Todd Lickliter. I guess the best way I can put this is that I was expecting this: "Y'all know me. Know how I earn a livin'. I'll catch this bird for you, but it ain't gonna be easy. Bad fish. Not like going down the pond chasin' bluegills and tommycods. This shark, swallow you whole. Little shakin', little tenderizin', an' down you go. And we gotta do it quick, that'll bring back your tourists, put all your businesses on a payin' basis. But it's not gonna be pleasant. I value my neck a lot more than three thousand bucks, chief. I'll find him for three, but I'll catch him, and kill him, for ten. But you've gotta make up your minds. If you want to stay alive, then ante up. If you want to play it cheap, be on welfare the whole winter. I don't want no volunteers, I don't want no mates, there's just too many captains on this island. Ten thousand dollars for me by myself. For that you get the head, the tail, the whole damn thing" but instead I think we got the idiots who try to catch the shark using a pot roast with a tire for a bobber.
Q. How do you foresee the rest of the year/offseason playing out?
A. It really wouldn't shock me to see them lose the next four games and just call it a season, but I expect them to win two of the next three, win the B10 tournament opener, lose their second, and make a very prestigious appearance in the NIT. From there who cares. Then things get interesting. Who leaves, like Roy Scheider after the sequel, and who sticks around like Lorraine Gary until the disaster that was Jaws 4?
Does Tubby leave? A frustrating year, an inability to advance the program, and lack of progress towards his precious practice facility could make leaving while his name still has plenty of cachet an attractive option for someone closing in on his last run. People always question if he'd really want to start over at a new program at his age, but I ask what's worse, that or squandering your last opportunity? It would surprise me if jumping ship to somewhere that's more of a basketball hotbed and has state-of-the-art facilities and a rabid fanbase (read: NC State) suddenly looks better to him that what's going here in basketballs Siberia. Don't forget, he was in play at some level before they hired Sid Lowe, who's about to get canned.
And how about Rodney and Trevor Mbakwe? There are convincing arguments for either of them to jump ship and go pro. Rodney could enter the NBA draft and based solely on potential have a shot at being a late first round pick. He shouldn't, and anybody who takes him should have their head examined, but it's a possibility. Not to mention the chance that he just decides things aren't working out here. He's not developing into the NBA player his high-school career suggested he would and I'm guessing he's not blind or myopic enough that he can't see that. It wouldn't shock me if he decides that he's not ready for the NBA but that Minnesota isn't he place to make that happen. As far as Mbakwe he's not an NBA player, although he could potentially develop into one with some improvements to his game, but he could make a living playing overseas. There's got to be a temptation factor there for an "old" senior who has had multiple legal issues and has been in school for too many years. If he's offered six figures to play pro ball in Australia or Israel, who'd begrudge him for leaving?
The only other transfer risk I really see is Mo Walker. With his best bud (get it, bud?) and possibly a guy who had a heavy hand in getting him here (although that seems less likely now) gone is he interested in sticking around, especially considering he has essentially a zero percent chance of starting next year? I think he'll probably stick around, but you never know.
Actually, I think most of them stick around. I'd say Walker is about 10% to leave, Williams 20%, Mbakwe 25%, and Tubby 50/50%. I hope they all stay. I really do, because I'm not ready to give up on Tubby going from the baby shark that ate the license plate to the shark that ate all them people, but I really didn't expect this team to still be sitting where it is. I really thought they'd be much farther by now.
Q. So what do you make of the Gophers' chances at this point to earn an NCAA Tournament bid?
A. Farewell and adieu, to you my Spanish ladies. Farewell and adieu, you ladies of Spain. For we've received orders to sail back to Boston, and so nevermore shall we be seeing you again.