Coach's criticism? Gophs say they're better for it
In consecutive question-and-answer sessions, Minnesota coach Tubby Smith has lamented what he's called a lack of maturity on the court this season.
When the losing streak reached four games in a defeat at home to Illinois this week, Smith sternly criticized the performance of four of his eight regulars and the team's overall mentality. He even labeled his current group ''boys'' and last season's seniors ''men'' while wondering whether the players respect his system and philosophy.
This time, after Saturday's practice, Smith reiterated his desire for more consistency, toughness and production, but softened his stance.
''It is what it is. We've got to make it happen with what we have,'' Smith said, adding: ''I've just got to be more patient. We just have a young team, an inexperienced team.''
Twice in three days, Smith has praised, arguably in a revisionist manner, the leadership he had last season from departed players Damian Johnson, Lawrence Westbrook, Paul Carter and Devron Bostick. With Al Nolen absent, his broken foot still healing, the makeup this year isn't the same.
''I've got to realize that. I expect more out of the guys, but then again I think we're getting all we can,'' Smith said.
Blake Hoffarber, the only other senior beside Nolen, is playing out of position in place of his buddy at point guard. Smith chided him for his shot selection after the Illinois game, and Hoffarber has also struggled with his ball-handling while other teams throw intense backcourt pressure at him.
Hoffarber, however, said he didn't take Smith's critique personally.
''When he says that stuff, some fans might think, 'Oh, man, he shouldn't have said that.' But I think he's just trying to build us up to be better players,'' Hoffarber said.
Video review has shown the Gophers (16-8, 5-7 Big Ten) getting stagnant at times, and Smith is trying to spark some intensity by creating more ''chippiness'' and physical play during practice with the hope that competitiveness will better carry over to the games.
''He wants us to get a little - I don't know if it's anger, but - motivation or fire under us to get us working harder and playing better,'' Hoffarber said.
Turnovers have been a big problem for the Gophers, with 35 giveaways over the last two games and an average of 13.8 per game that ranks second-worst in the Big Ten. The verdict is players have been too anxious and prone to rushing with the ball.
''It's kind of like hot potato or popcorn with us,'' said junior forward Ralph Sampson III. ''We're trying to always hit the open man and try to get the home run play every time. We just need to calm down and be patient with it. We all know we can play and we all know we can make passes. It's just slowing down and making the right one.''
Despite their experience, the Gophers endured a similarly rough stretch in January and February, though they never lost as many as four in a row. They used the Big Ten tournament to rally and slip into the NCAA tournament.
Though Smith and the players raved about stronger chemistry this season before it began, the depth the Gophers had prior to losing Nolen, guard Devoe Joseph (transfer) and center Maurice Walker (knee) has been devastating.
Sampson acknowledged that it's been harder to play with only eight guys in the rotation, and with forward Rodney Williams and center Colton Iverson struggling badly to regain their confidence and provide some production, Minnesota has never looked more thin on talent under Smith. He said he's considering playing walk-on forward Dominique Dawson some off the bench Sunday at Iowa.
In addition to blaming himself for not being patient enough, Smith also admitted a mistakes in not making lineup adjustments more quickly in the process of going from big (with Sampson and Iverson starting together) to small (with freshman Austin Hollins in the lineup). He said the coaching staff has been trying to simplify the offensive playbook and that he hopes his harsh words after the Illinois game would serve as an encourager.
''When the frustration sets in, you keep teaching certain guys to do certain things until it gets heard,'' Smith said. ''Maybe that might be a way to inspire or motivate.''
Sampson sure made it sound like he's listening.
''You've got to answer the challenge. You can't back down from it. You can't hide. You have to step into more of a man role and step your game up,'' he said. ''Keep answering and don't let him allow you to challenge you the same way again. That's how you grow as a person, grow as a man, grow as a player.''