Smith, Minnesota Trying to Move Forward

It was at the end of the 2010 NCAA Tournament when coach Tubby Smith was being linked to major job openings, the most threatening of which seemed to be a blank-check opportunity at Oregon. Smith stayed put, citing his increasing level of happiness in the Twin Cities and the product the Golden Gophers would put on the floor in 2010-11.

Fast forward to March 2011. The Golden Gophers were passed over for all postseason opportunities. Injuries, most notably to Al Nolen, and what Smith cited as a lack of maturity -- compared to the previous season's roster -- sank Minnesota in a year in which the Big Ten was rather mediocre aside from Ohio State.

While the NCAA Tournament was kicking off, Smith was issuing another denial about his interest in an opening with a big program. This time, Arkansas. But Smith's irritability wouldn't prevent him from taking a listen if Arkansas called.

Smith has again expressed complete happiness with the environs at Minnesota and said he believes he can forward the program.

He could be right, but the constant temptation or rumors of flirtation with other programs won't help Smith keep Minnesota competitive. He has a solid foundation in place, including freshman Maurice Walker, who missed most of last season with an injury.

But to break the cycle that has defined the last two seasons in Minneapolis -- dance on the bubble through February and March and wait and listen with clinched teeth and fists for their postseason fate, and that of Smith, to be decided -- Smith must show he's committed to seeing the program through. That means when the likes of Oregon and Arkansas ring, he chooses not to answer.

NOTES, QUOTES

--The Gophers' 17-14 record stands as one of the worst final records for a Tubby Smith-coached team. Tulsa was 15-14 in 1992-93.

Smith's future was a hot topic as the season ended. Arkansas and North Carolina State were considered teams interested in Smith, but the coach said on a radio show on March 14 that he was committed to Minnesota. He also said he'd listen to Arkansas without directly commenting on the NC State opening.

Smith's agent told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune a contract extension was in the works for Smith at Minnesota. Of course, the extension wouldn't prevent Smith from leaving. One reason there could be a chill over the Smith-Gophers marriage is the lack of funding for the $15 million practice facility Smith was promised upon his hiring in 2007.

--Junior C Ralph Sampson III could put his name up for consideration in the 2011 NBA draft, according to published reports. Sampson has made no official declaration. He scored more than 10 points just once in the final seven games and is considered a defensive specialist at this point in his career.

FINAL RECORD: 17-14, 6-12, ninth in the Big Ten

2010-11 SEASON RECAP: The Gophers were 11-1 entering Big Ten play but lost three of their first four in conference action and from Jan. 29-March 10, had a 1-10 record. Injuries to senior point guard Al Nolen (foot) and Maurice Walker (knee) and the surprising decision to transfer by Devoe Joseph, who landed at Oregon, were setbacks that put the team into a tailspin.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't want it to sound like the tournaments are not quality tournaments, but at this stage in our program, we believe that we just needed to start our preparation toward next season." -- Coach Tubby Smith on passing on the College Basketball Invitational and CollegeInsider.com Tournament.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THE GOOD NEWS: They'll be young, but coach Tubby Smith is confident the Gophers will also be richly talented. Minnesota was forced to hold the feet of three talented freshman guards to the fire this season when injuries and other issues left Smith no choice, and they'll have a solid haul of freshmen backcourt players coming in as part of a three- or four-man recruiting class in 2011.

THE BAD NEWS: Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber made up the starting backcourt to open the season and both are gone. Junior center Ralph Sampson III is no lock to return, especially if there's a coaching change. That leaves the team shy on experience, scoring and potentially size. Nolen won't just be missed as a passer and scorer, but his on-ball defense was the program's best in some time.

KEY RETURNEES: Sampson isn't a prolific scorer -- he averaged 10 points in 2010-11 -- but his defense and rebounding are invaluable in the Big Ten. There is no pure shooter of Hoffarber's ilk on the roster but Oto Osenieks has potential on the perimeter as does the streaky Austin Hollins. Incoming freshman Joe Coleman also has ability, but it'll be a young mishmash of players for the first half of the season.

PLAYER NOTES --Junior college guard Julian Welch of Yuba Community College in California committed to Minnesota in mid-March. He was the third player to join the recruiting class of 2011.


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