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.