Monday, February 4, 2013

What is up with Tubby Smith, man?

Over the last couple of years there seems to be a big undercurrent of talk about firing Tubby Smith.  Generally I just dismissed this as mostly lunatic ramblings, given that he had taken over a pretty moribund program and restored it to respectability with back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.  Sure, there were plenty of frustrations - the Royce White situation, the myriad of transfers, some in-game things, players not developing, etc. - but you get those from time to time with pretty much any coach.  The team was relevant again and playing better basketball with better players, and frankly after the end of the Monson era pretty much anything would have felt pretty good.  But lately, man.  Lately I just don't know.  And this goes beyond back-to-back missed NCAA Tournaments, it's more of, I don't know, a little bit of everything.  I realize that to an outsider this might seem a little unnecessary given that the Gophers are ranked for the first time in what I assume is forever and seem like a lock to make the tournament this year, but if you're reading this you're probably not an outsider, and I feel like there's a very good chance you're nodding your head right now and not because you're listening to Busta Rhymes.

A college basketball head coach has 3 main jobs.  Ok really just one - to win - but it's broken into three parts:  recruiting, coaching to improve the players you already have, and game planning (both pre-game and in-game).  How would you rate Tubby on these right now?  I'm most interesting in talking game planning, but I'm going to hit the other two as well.

First, recruiting.  You remember his first two classes - blue chippers, name players, going after guys with offers from Kentucky (Sampson), Kansas (Joseph), Florida (Iverson), and Michigan State (White), top 100 guys, top 50 guys, and getting them.  The last few classes, however, he's seemed to be settling more.  Although both Hollinseses and Coleman look like nice finds and are certainly playing well, none of them were all that highly sought after and the best offer any of them had was probably Memphis's to Austin, although that could be mitigated a bit since he's from Tennessee.  This year's class and next year's are made up of four players, none of which make the national rankings list, and for all four you could make an argument for the Gophers being the best program offering them.  There are few other offers between them that could make that argument as well, but the Gophers no longer seem to be getting, or even offering, the players that are nationally well thought of.

Now, I will say this.  Seeing how the Hollins twins and Coleman have been working out keeps me in Tubby's corner here.  It could be that Tubby needed to go after bigger names and more well known players early in his tenure to establish a recruiting base and bring the team back to relevancy, and now can be more picky and choosy with the "type" of players he wants even if they aren't on the national map.  That strategy can work (see: Wisconsin) and this year's team is a good example of it.  Add in that the two 2013 recruits already signed (Alvin Ellis and Alex Foster) are guys Tubby's been after for a long time and I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt for now.  The real test is in 2014 with three Minnesota kids in Rivals Top 41.  Tubby needs to get at least one of them to wear the maroon and gold.  I would be ecstatic with two, but there has got to be at least one.  The jury is still out on him here.

As far as coaching players up, that's another thing that has seemed to improve and helps strengthen any pro-Tubby argument that he needed the right kind of players.  Sampson was obviously a bust and I don't think Devoe Joseph was markedly better the day he bolted for Oregon than when he arrived on campus.  Colton Iverson and Justin Cobbs have both absolutely thrived after leaving Minnesota, and all four of those players' successes or lack there of are on Tubby's inability to get them to improve.  Once again, the Hollinses and Coleman are his saving grace, because Austin has gotten leaps and bounds better and both Andre and Coleman have improved (although Coleman's defense makes baby jesus cry).  Rodney Williams has regressed a bit this year, but there's no doubt that his improvement from sophomore to junior was a large one.  Whether you want to give the majority of the credit for that simply to Mbakwe being out for the year is up to you, but Tubby still had to coach him, put him in the right position, and get him to change his game.  The real test on this one will be next year.  With Mbakwe and Williams gone the front court is going to be Mo Walker and Elliott Elliason, and unless he makes some real progress with those two it could be pretty ugly.  Once again, the jury is out but I'm inclined to rule in Tubby's favor and call it "getting the right kind of players for Tubby."

Now, I wrote those first two paragraphs (3, actually) to illustrate that I'm in no way a rabid Tubby basher.  I'm in his corner in a lot of ways, and other than a tweet or a throwaway comment in a post I've rarely said anything negative about him.  That being said, what in the holy hell does this guy do at practice?  We saw the problem again against Iowa.  Any time the Hawkeyes would do their 3/4 court trap the Gopher guards would completely panic, even to the point where on one possession Rodney Williams still had the ball at the 3-point line in the back court with 7 seconds gone from the shot clock before the crowd helped him realize what was going on and he tried to fly over the timeline and do something with the ball and, naturally, oops turnover.  Things were just as bad when Iowa played zone in the half court, with the guards appearing to play a four corners stall ball style despite the fact that they were losing with under 3 minutes to play.

I mean, it's not like Iowa doesn't ever play zone and they pretty much break out the trap every game, so there's no way these guys should be so perplexed as to what to do, especially since by all accounts and all visual evidence both Hollins kids are pretty cerebral players.  If this was an isolated incident it would be one thing, but look at how the Gophers weren't only unable to score against Northwestern's 1-3-1 but immediately turned into a bunch of JV players, and this is the same zone Northwestern uses every single game.  They couldn't find a way to score or get good shots against Wisconsin when the Badgers play the same defensive scheme every single year, and they went through about a twelve minute period against Michigan State where they couldn't inbound the ball under their own basket.  There's just too much here, and this is just this season when we could find a whole bunch more examples if we looked back a few seasons.

Look I'm not some sort of basketball genius (actually I am, but for the sake of this post let's pretend I'm not) but while scoring and getting good shots against a good team playing a zone can be difficult (thus Syracuse's success), the basics of beating a zone don't change no matter the level of play and anyone should be able to grasp them.  It's pretty simple, start your offense where the defense isn't.  If they're playing 1-3-1, you should arrange your players in a 2-1-2.  If they're in a 2-3, go with a 3-2 (with one guy at the high post, one at the low).  You put your players in the natural gaps in the zone and then use quick passes and ball movement (and ball fakes where appropriate) to keep the defense moving and shifting which will inevitably create gaps that can be exploited with cuts, dribble penetration, and passes.  Honestly a good offense against a decent zone should be able to create shots in most cases without even running a single pattern or setting a single pick or screen.  It's quite simple.

So why, WHY, can't Tubby's teams seem to grasp this?  The key to beating a zone (after you actually, you know, line up properly) is the guy in the middle - whoever is at the free throw line/high post.  Get that guy the ball and the zone needs to dramatically shift to cover him, leaving open shooters and cutters.  That is the most important player in beating a zone, and both Mbakwe and Williams are athletic enough and good enough passers to handle it, and if the defense sags or doesn't react quickly enough I trust them both to either drive or hit the 15-foot jumper as the situation dictates.  Honestly the way the Gophers are constructed they should absolutely destroy zone defenses beyond more than getting a ton of offensive rebounds (which, admittedly, the do very well).  So why don't they?  BECAUSE THERE IS NEVER ANYBODY AT THE GOD DAMN HIGH POST.  The key guy to beating a zone (or a press but just shift everyone into the backcourt and make the free throw line the half court line) and somehow nobody is ever there?

Seriously, watch the Gophers the next time somebody drops into a zone against them (and I'm willing to bet Izzo will give it a shot even though they're mostly a man team) and you'll see how few possessions actually have somebody in that space and, worse, how few actually result in touches for whoever it is.  If you're moving the ball and getting open shots and they just aren't falling that's one thing, but not even running a proper offense against the defense being played against you?  There's no way to place the blame for that on anyone but the coach, and I'm talking 97% of the blame, not just 51%.  Inexcusable.  Tubby must spend 90% of practice on defense, and at least that part works, but not being prepared and not being able to adjust mid-game is just baffling.  Yeah, he drew up a couple of good plays to get Coleman a lay-up late and the big Hollins three-pointer against Iowa, but let's not do whatever the opposite of throw the baby out with the bathwater here - Tubby has been a terrible game coach since he got here.

I'm still not in the "fire tubby" camp simply because I'm not sure where to go from here.  Unless you're bringing in an elite level of talent like Kentucky and Calipari (who makes Tubby look like Bill Self) you can't be a great team without someone on the sidelines who can put the players in the best position to win and then adjust if they aren't there or something changes.  Obviously neither of those things are happening, but I'm not sure how to change that either - it's not like Tim Miles (a good game coach) has had any success at Nebraska in year one.  There's no doubt Tubby can coach and teach defense (I am still impressed by their rotations on defense in most games) and defense will at least keep them competitive so that's a positive.  Plus I remember clambering for a firing of Glen Mason for failing to rise above mediocrity and look how that turned out.  So I'm not calling for a firing of Tubby, despite the mediocre results in his five years or whatever it is, but I do think it's time to at least start considering some options.

Shaka Smart is the best hire by most accounts and given his prior relationship with Norwood Teague is probably at least somewhat realistic as well, and I would have liked Miles but it's hard to believe he's going to jump from Nebraska so quickly.  One guy I'd like the Gophers to take a long and hard look at hiring is Gregg Marshall.  He's had two jobs, Winthrop and Wichita, and has had nothing but success with a 320-146 career record and seven conference titles in 14 years.  He's only 50, too, so he won't be nodding off on the sidelines or just trying to go through the motions to get another paycheck.  He's a good game coach, a solid recruiter, and brings in at least some name recognition.  I don't think it's time for Tubby to go, but a first round exit, failure to bring in any of the three Minnesota kids, and another disappointing season?  Yeah, then it's time.  Hopefully we don't get to that point, but I'm really starting to think Tubby's lack of offensive acumen - and apparently nobody else on staff who can take that responsibility from him - is going to hold the Gophers back, and if it's hurting the most talented Gopher team since 1997, what's it going to do if the talent falls off?

Plus anything to guarantee Saul doesn't coach here is a net positive.

If you made it through this entire thing you deserve a reward, so here you go.  You're welcome.

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WB said...

Go look at MSU's margin of victory over B10 opponents this year. LOT's of close games. 49-47 @ Wisco, 62 -59 @ Iowa, 80-75 home against Ill.

I know MN had high expectations this year and they were off to quite the promising start but MSU has a higher ranked recruit at every single position and a better coach and a much richer history of success. I can guarantee that MSU fans aren't screaming for or contemplating Izzo's replacement.

I don't think Duke fans we calling for Coach K's head after the 30 pt drubbing to NC State.

MN will be in the Sweet 16 as predicted before the season started, which means they met expectations and Tubby took the team to a level MN has only seen 3 times in 25 years. Be happy with the success. Next year will be as good or better as we still have Hollins' squared.

TW said...

WB- Was that comment a joke? It's like you didn't even read the post. You site Michigan St winning by a close margin of victory as supporting evidence that Tubby is a good coach and we should be happy? If anything, that speaks to how great of a coach Izzo is if he can take home a ton of tight games. Coaching is paramount in those games and we would probably have won the NW and UW games if we had a coach who could make in game changes/run an offense.

It's been especially hard this year watching this super talented gopher team constantly under achieve because we are one, if not the most, mentally weak team in the B10. Now a little of the blame should fall on us not really having someone to step up as a leader when we start turning the ball over at the end of games, but a lot of it falls on Tubby.

There is simply no excuse for not being able to have a plan against a zone defense, none. The gophers would be better off with my 5th grade traveling coach standing on the side lines when we see the inevitable zone come out.

WWWWWW said...

If Tubby takes the team to the Sweet 16 I will be more than happy with the success. Keep in mind I'm not calling for his head here, I'm just saying that his coaching flaws are suddenly becoming glaringly obvious now that he has a talented team.

And the comparison to Michigan State is ludicrous. One program/coach has a legacy of slow starts and coming together at the end of the year to make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament. The other has a legacy of hot starts and gigantic fades that result in missing the NCAA Tournament.

rghrbek said...

I think WB is smoking some crack.

Wwww, good post. Although my angst with Tubby has grown the past two seasons, I am not ready to call for his head just yet.

However, a .500 finish in the big ten (there abouts), and another first round exit...well, then it might be time to go.

The only problem, is the point you bring up. Who do we bring in? It has to be a huge name with the 2014 recruiting class coming up. Who is available, and would want to come here?

If the gophers want to get any of the big 3 from 2014, they need to win now. I am also not very optimistic about next years squad (no depth up front, zero, and not proven up front starters).

I like Tubby and want him to do well, even though he is quick to criticize the kids for a loss, not him, his staff, or Saul's wispy hair.

They had similar complaints, in Kentucky, about Tub's offense. They had blue chippers every year, and had similar failings.

Regardless, we need the gophers to do well, for 2014!

Go Goph's

WB said...

I was drawing a comparison to a team/coach that is loaded with talent and has won quite a few low scoring close games. I don't believe Izzo is being accused of being unable to figure out a zone.

TW, the gophers lost to Wisco because of poor coaching??? Are you sure that it didn't have something to do with Austin, Rodney and Coleman missing 20 open shots within the offense? Do you use Dubay's guy to purchase your crack?

snacks said...

Funny story. Was listening to the postgame show on the radio for some reason, and Tubby specifically mentioned that on the big three pointer Austin ad libbed to get that open look and the play was actually drawn up to get Andre a look off another screen. So you can cut your good coaching decisions for tubby in that game in half.

WB said...

TW and Rghrbek- When you two are slobbering on WWWWW's crank which one takes the balls and which one works the shaft?

Snacks, I would argue a well coached team knows how to improvise when a play breaks down. Remember we are talking about basketball, not chess, no coach can control everything that happens.

Lastly, WWWWWW way to take a stand on the Tubby matter.

WWWWWW said...

Comparing the Gophers to Michigan State is just bizarre too me. Do you really think I'm worried about the Iowa result because the score was close, or do you think it's because the Gophers seemed woefully unprepared in ways that they shouldn't have?

WB said...

My guess is the score! Did you ever think maybe Iowa isnt that bad and caused the gophers fits? Of course not, it has to be preparation. You write a blog about college basketball and look at the game like an 8th grade basketball coach.

Anonymous said...

Hey, EG#9 from the GopherHole...interesting take on Tubby. I think you are generous on his recruiting and on players improving under him.

Recruiting: Gophers had a HUGE need for a PF in this class and lost out on TWO target to Bo Ryan in Vitto Brown and Nigel Hayes. They also messed around with Matt Thomas and ended up losing him to Iowa State. This is the second year in a row where the Gophers have failed to bring in a top 100 recruit...and if Tubby Smith had any "name value" left that would never happen. I've heard second hand from many different sources that Tubby simply doesn't work the recruiting trail that hard.

As for player improvement? There's been a few guys who have improved, but look at our bench this year: who's improved? Maverick has improved his shot, but still can't handle the ball. Julian's playing worse than last year, Oto is no better than last year, Elliott has not improved on his NIT run. Andre Ingram is the same guy. Mo Walker has done nothing. Think about it: that's 6 guys who are at least in their 2nd year in the program and none of them have stepped up to be reliable players? That points to both recruiting failures and a lack of player development. Oto/Mo/Elliott/Maverick are all in their 3rd year on campus and their should be at least one really solid guy out of that quartet.

As for another poster talking about close games: Tubby has been horrible in close games during conference play the past 2 seasons. Look up his record in games decided by 2 possessions or less. At one point they were somthing like 2-10...many of those losses coming at home.

I come from the school of thought that when you can no longer picture something working, it's time for a change. I think Tubby can possibly get to the sweet 16 this year BUT, I also think that this team slides back to 6-7 conference wins next year barring an impact frontcourt addition in the Spring. I can't see Tubby becoming more motivated on the recruiting trail and changing his offensive gameplan as he ages, can you?

TW said...

WB- If you check the time of my post you'll notice it was before WWWWW's. So I have done zero slobbering of cranks, but I do admire your ability to bring out lots of crank sucking references in defense of your god awful Michigan St comparison.

That's all I would do too if my argument was as brutal as that.

Glad to see the comments get going today, good stuff

WWWWWW said...

That seals it. WB is either Dawger or a complete idiot. Or I guess both.

WB said...

The slobbering had to do with you and RG defending WWW's post not his comment. Which again leads me to ask if you are a ball guy or shaft guy?

If a team like MSU struggles against the zone and they have an elite coach then that would suggest that the opponent has something to do with the struggles rather then a coaching failure.

WTF is a Dawger???

WWWWWW said...

Did you watch Michigan State vs. Iowa?

WB said...

Yes, they won 62-59 which I believe is the exact same score from when MN beat Iowa. Thanks for validating my point.

Track Phantom said...

Best article I've seen written regarding Tubby Smith. Absolutely spot on!!! Wow, what a great read. There is no question, NONE, ZERO, ZIP, that MN is waaaaaay too rudimentary when it comes to half court offensive sets. I looked it up, in the last 20 BIG 10 games, MN has had double digit minutes (10+) where they scored 7 points or less, 16 times. 16 of 20 games in the BIG 10 where they go ICE COLD from the field. When you watch the way they set up their offensive, it is crystal clear why. New coach soon please.

WWWWWW said...

WB - did Michigan State struggle against the zone? Were they missing open shots or unable to get open shots? If you're just evaluating by the score then there's not point in continuing this conversation because NOT ONCE HAVE I SAID I WAS CONCERNED BECAUSE THE GOPHERS ONLY BEAT IOWA BY 3.

WB said...


And what the F does Tubby have to do with people missing open shits? That falls on the players not the coach, you do know that correct?

When did Track Phantom join your three ways party? You guys are all basketball idiots!

WWWWWW said...

So dumb.

WB said...

"So dumb????" Those are the words of a basketball reject who knows nothing about the game outside of what he learned in jr. High. Get back to over reacting to scores and having four ways with you lap dogs....idiot!

Stay off the bandwagon in March also.