Gophers, Smith face complicated future
MINNEAPOLIS – After a season that extended longer than many expected, stretching far into March and all the way to the NIT finals, Tubby Smith and the Gophers are a bit behind.
Usually by now, a week into April, Smith has had end-of-season conversations with his players. He's talked to seniors about their experiences and NBA hopes, to players who might want to transfer about their options. But after the trip to New York and another to watch the Final Four, Smith is just now getting around to those talks, and after a season like the Gophers', a lot of questions still remain.
Smith said he wouldn't be surprised if perhaps one or more players would want to discuss their future with the team and transfer options. So in recent days, he's been preparing for those conversations, which he's had so many times over his 33-year coaching career.
"I really haven't had a chance to get all the information I need," Smith said. "I want to have all the information in front of me so when we do talk I can say, ‘This is what I expect going forward. Or this is what you didn't do and this is what you need to do.'"
Those conversations come whether a team is winning or losing. They're a natural part of any offseason, but for Smith, negotiating next year's roster involves a larger complication. Forward Trevor Mbakwe, whom the NCAA granted a sixth year of eligibility in March after he suffered a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 26, is still considering whether he'll return to the Gophers next season. Although Smith said Mbakwe told him Wednesday that he wants to stay at Minnesota, nothing is yet official, and the team has one more step to take before it can bring Mbakwe back.
Right now, the Gophers are using their maximum amount of scholarships, and they would need to exceed that number in order to bring Mbakwe back as a scholarship player. The school sent a letter to the NCAA explaining the situation, and it will have to petition for that extra scholarship in the coming weeks.
With those inherent roster questions and two recruits, Charles Buggs and Wally Ellenson, joining the team for summer school in two months, Smith may have a lot to negotiate when it comes to his roster next fall. However, he said that he thinks his coaching staff will most likely remain intact, despite several coaches exploring available opportunities. And the biggest coaching question of all, that of Smith's contract, is also unlikely to cause much of a disruption. Even though Smith doesn't anticipate signing anything until the school hires a new athletics director, he said he is confident that the contract will be extended after conversations with university president Eric Kaler.
And for a team like the Gophers, some measure of coaching stability should be key this offseason. After two straight years in which Smith's teams have underperformed down the stretch, the Gophers need to learn how to get past 2011-12's record and focus on the future.
The Gophers went into this season with the mindset that they were poised to have a successful season, but after finishing the regular season with an 18-13 record, there must be regrets. There were key injuries, sure, but there were also turnovers and too many games pushed out of reach in their final seconds. The season had its positives, though, a late-season spark that developed into an NIT run and the team's attitude, which rarely disappointed its coach.
"I was impressed by how our kids kept their composure all year long," Smith said. "I was very pleased with our young players, especially our freshmen and sophomores, with how they developed and matured."
A 75-51 blowout loss in the NIT finals was an ending few predicted – not after the team won 12 of its first 13 games, not when it collapsed in Big Ten conference play and not even after it defeated Washington in the semi-final game. Expectations disappeared and were renewed, though maybe as second-tier hopes in the second-best tournament. Even so, the team would be wise to remember what it accomplished in a tournament it was on the brink of missing, a performance that suggested that maybe this team could be better than where it ended up in March.
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