Tubby Smith says he believes Gophers will improve

Tubby Smith’s fourth year at Minnesota was his most

disappointing, stopping his streak of 17 straight 20-win seasons

and leaving the stunned and depleted Gophers out of not only the

NCAA tournament but the NIT, as well.

The streak was the longest active run among major college

coaches. This was also the first time Smith missed the postseason

since 1993.

”We were 16-4, so I’ve got to look at it and say, ‘OK, what

changed? What needs to be changed?”’ Smith said. ”Every time I

come back to it, I go, ‘Well, we really didn’t have the two best

players on our team.”’

Al Nolen and Devoe Joseph were feisty, confident guards who

struggled at times but showed an ability to drive to the basket and

defend the perimeter. When Joseph left the program in a clash with

Smith over attitude and academics and Nolen went down with a broken

foot, the Gophers were suddenly missing critical attributes they

weren’t able to replace.

They lost 10 of their last 11 games and much of their confidence

along with it. Smith was critical of the performance of several

players down the stretch and, in an interview with The Associated

Press on Tuesday, was steadfast in his belief that a change in

style is unnecessary.

His assessment: Some of his players didn’t train well enough the

previous summer, and the entire team was a victim of the unlucky

breaks of season-ending injuries to Nolen and freshman center

Maurice Walker. Not only did their absences prove costly, but other

players the Gophers redshirted because they appeared to have depth

at every position were unable to help.

”We’d have been playing for a Big Ten championship if Al Nolen

and Maurice Walker were healthy. It’s as simple as that,” Smith

said. ”The best-laid plans.”

As he peered through a window at his returning players running

up and down the court at Williams Arena, Smith expressed optimism

about the addition of recruits Julian Welch, Andre Ingram, Joe

Coleman and Andre Hollins – plus Elliott Eliason, Oto Osenieks and

Chris Halvorsen, redshirts last season.

Throw in Walker, and there ought to be plenty of competition at

every position.

Smith’s reflection on the rough year included an acknowledgment

he mismanaged the lineup when Nolen got hurt.

Blake Hoffarber, the only other senior on the team, moved out of

his natural shooting guard position. Rodney Williams was out of his

element in Hoffarber’s spot, and with 6-foot-11 junior Ralph

Sampson shoehorned in at small forward, the Gophers had plenty of

size but not nearly enough speed. Smith said he should’ve kept

Hoffarber where he was and given one of the freshmen, likely

Maverick Ahanmisi, a chance.

Without Nolen and Joseph, they didn’t generate enough fast

breaks from backcourt steals, and they were vulnerable against

strong 3-point shooting teams. Junior Colton Iverson didn’t provide

enough scoring in the paint, and without an identity or a rhythm in

the half-court set the Gophers played offense as if they didn’t

have much of a plan. Shooting percentages sagged, and the losses


Smith denied any rift between the players and coaches or a lack

of respect or trust from the team when the struggles started.

”Guys, they’re human beings. They’re going to have feelings of

neglect, feelings of insecurity,” Smith said. ”I didn’t like my

mom and dad when they disciplined me.”

Iverson recently joined Joseph as the latest player to transfer

since Smith arrived. The coach lamented the increase in


”I think it’s a learned habit, because even now you’ve got kids

switching schools in high school, you’ve got them switching AAU

teams. I think it becomes easy for guys to just throw up their

hands and say, ‘Well, you know?”’ Smith said. ”I don’t know if

it’s quitting. It’s just that there are more opportunities for


Smith, who turns 60 in June, said he hopes this is his last head

coaching job. Though his name has surfaced in connection with

openings at other schools over the last few years, Smith said he’s

not looking around. With three seasons left on the seven-year

contract that pays him $1.75 million guaranteed annually, Smith

said there’s no rush to sign the extension that’s been pending for


”It’s still out there. It’s still on somebody’s desk. It’s not

on my desk,” Smith said, alluding to a delay caused by the change

at the top this summer when Eric Kaler replaces Robert Bruininks as

school president. ”I want to be fair, and they want to be fair.

It’s not about money.”