This is Tubby's kind of team
Tubby Smith won a national championship about 35 seconds after he arrived at Kentucky. Won more memorable games than a coach is supposed to win at Tulsa. Ditto at Georgia. Few would be surprised if Springfield summons Smith one day.
This is what Smith says about his University of Minnesota basketball team, the one that just won the Puerto Rico Tip-Off:
“I like our team,” Smith said. “This is as coachable a group as any team I’ve had. We feel like we have the pieces in place. We have the type of players we want in our program.”
Beware: Tubby Smith doesn’t do hype. So when he talks confidently, be assured that Smith has a college basketball team that is nationally relevant again.
Confirmation came after the Gophers dispatched Western Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia, proving they went to San Juan for more than the keepsake sand-castle photographs.
Minnesota delivered even though one of its best players (guard Devoe Joseph) stayed in Minneapolis for disciplinary reasons. Minnesota won even though the Gophers were unranked and generally picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten.
Minnesota (5-0) is not unranked any more, powering into the top 15 of the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in 14 seasons. Check the Gophers’ schedule. Odds are they will be 12-0 when they begin play in the daunting Big Ten at Wisconsin on Dec. 28.
Is this a team that can win a national championship? Unlikely. Is it a group that can beat anybody it plays and make you hope you avoid Smith and his trademark scowl in March? Absolutely.
“We’ve got a group of guys that have a toughness about them,” assistant coach Vince Taylor said. “We’ve got a veteran team that’s been with Coach a few years and understands the way he likes to play. Coach is excited about this team.”
Translation: Smith has a team that is high on grit and low on ego, which is just the way he likes it.
This is the fourth season since Smith made his unconventional career fast break to Minnesota from Kentucky, where he had coached 10 seasons.
It was the right move for Kentucky, where there had been years of grumbling about Smith’s playing style (too deliberate), three NCAA Elite Eight defeats (too many) and recruiting (not enough John Walls and Brandon Knights).
Of course, it was also the right move for Smith. He is a loyal, ethical and disciplined man, fiercely so. He knows the way he prefers to play the game -- and he knows the players he needs to succeed that way. It’s not always the McDonald’s All-Americans.
Now, Smith has his best team in Minnesota, gritty, determined, relentless, eager to please their coach.
“We have some bulk, we have some size, we’ve got good solid depth and we have good veteran play,” Smith said.
Start where Smith likes to start -- with his veteran backcourt, senior guards Blake Hoffarber and Al Nolen. They excelled in San Juan. Hoffarber averaged 37 minutes per game, Nolen more than 34 because Joseph remains suspended for breaking a team rule.
“He broke a few of them,” Smith said. “You hope he understands.”
Hoffarber is known as the shooter. He is also the guy Smith asked to defend North Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes. Hoffarber got Barnes started on his 0-for-12 shooting performance against Minnesota.
Nolen is the defender, the player teammates have nicknamed “The Glove.” But Nolen averaged 12 points and nearly four assists in Puerto Rico.
“I thought Nolen was outstanding taking care of the ball,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins.
The frontcourt is a trio of familiar faces, plus one essential newcomer, Trevor Mbakwe, who returned from Puerto Rico with the tournament MVP award.
The returnees -- Ralph Sampson III, Colton Iverson and Rodney Williams -- should improve upon the 17.5 points and nearly 12 rebounds they gave the Gophers last season.
But the guy who has changed the look of Minnesota’s frontcourt is Mbakwe, a thunderous 6-foot-8, 240-pound junior. Mbakwe played high school basketball in St. Paul and then started his college career at Marquette. When coach Tom Crean left for Indiana, Mbakwe transferred to Miami Dade Community College after his freshman season.
Mbakwe missed last season after he was charged with assault in Miami. What followed was more than a year of legal negotiating and debate about whether it was a case of mistaken identity.
Last summer Mbakwe chose to enroll in a pre-trial program for first-time offenders, which was not an admission of guilt. Upon completion of 100 hours of community service and a $100 donation to a Florida facility for abuse victims, Mbakwe will have his record cleared.
Provided this new opportunity, Mbakwe leads Minnesota in scoring (14.0), rebounding (9.4) and energy.
“He’s definitely made a big impact,” Hoffarber said. “He’s a double-double machine.”
Said Smith: “He can go get it. He can flat-out rebound the basketball. We’ve thrown more lobs than we’ve ever thrown now because we have players who can go get it and finish with it.”
Indeed. Minnesota has players who can finish with it -- and players who have Tubby Smith and his program into the national college basketball conversation again.