When former Kentucky head coach Tubby Smith landed in Minneapolis in March, University of Minnesota basketball fans were both excited and confused. Why would a coach with Smith's record — 1998 national championship, five SEC titles, 16 winning seasons in a row — agree to coach a team that hadn't reached the Final Four since the late ‘90s?
Smith said he needed to make a change. And the high expectations at Kentucky didn't help. NCAA tournament appearances alone don't win coaches a lot of brownie points in Lexington.
But he'll likely be carried through the streets of Minneapolis on a custom-made throne if he can take the Gophers back to the NCAA tournament, where they made their last appearance in 2005.
"If we don't win, and if we don't compete for a championship in the relatively near future, then we better look in the mirror because we certainly, again, have hired one of the best coaches in America," said athletic director Joel Maturi.
More immediate expectations call for the Gophers to build on last year's 9-22 campaign and possibly make the NIT.
Last season's record for the Gophers can be attributed to poor defense (66.2 points allowed per game), a midseason coaching change and a strong conference. But with all five starters from last season returning, including seniors Dan Coleman (14.2 ppg and 6 rpg), Lawrence McKenzie (14.9 ppg and 2.77 apg) and Spencer Tollackson (12 ppg and 5.3 rpg), and premier coach Smith leading the way, Minnesota won't have a lot of excuses for underachieving this year. But Coleman and Tollackson have to be aggressive on the boards and McKenzie should improve upon last year's assists average.
Starters Kevin Payton (20.4 mpg) and Jamal Abu-Shamala ( 43.1 three point field goal percentage) also return. The Gophers only lost sophomore center Bryce Webster, who asked to be released from his scholarship earlier this year, but the core of the team remains intact. That core, however, only amassed a 3-13 record in conference play last season.
Smith will really have to work with Coleman, a forward who's been a highly touted player since high school, because his consistency – or lack thereof – as a scorer and rebounder could be the deciding factor for a team that doesn't want to repeat last year's woes. A breakout performance by Coleman, a healthy Tollackson and a strong McKenzie could put this squad in a position to compete against most teams in the conference.
Smith admits that he doesn't have a lot of depth. McKenzie will have to play a lot of point guard, and true freshman Al Nolen Jr. could step in at the point guard spot later in the year, possibly earning big minutes. Injuries kept center Tollackson out for part of last season, a loss that the Gophers can't afford this year.
Smith's resume indicates he's a great coach. And fans are hoping for some immediate improvements, but they expect the real changes to come once he has a chance to bring in a few recruiting classes.
Expectations High Under Smith's Leadership
Gopher Illustrated Top Stories
4-star Green has Minnesota RootsMinnesota’s most recent offer went to 2018 guard A.J. Green of Cedar Falls, Iowa. Green is ranked as the 87th best prospect in the country and last weekend visited Minnesota…
Gopher IllustratedYesterday at 9:51 AM
Know Your Enemy: Penn StatePenn State publisher Mark Brennan of FightOnState.com breaks down the Penn State Nittany Lions, the Gophers week 5 opponent.
Gopher IllustratedYesterday at 6:54 AM
Gopher Gridiron Radio 9.28.16Derek Burns returns to join Luke and Ryan breakdown the Gophers victory over Colorado State.
Gopher IllustratedYesterday at 6:29 AM
Focus on 16-17: Bakary KonateBakary Konate started at center last winter for the Gophers as a true sophomore season. Konate gained 22 minutes of experience on average. Konate is the subject of today’s focus.
Gopher IllustratedTuesday at 1:19 PM