Such a dramatic turnaround for a program still haunted by scandals and NCAA violations seemed impossible at the start of the season.
Then again, the Gophers' brilliant 16-1 start means their 22-12 season — and subsequent first-round loss from the tournament — leaves a bitter taste of disappointment.
There is little question, that Minnesota basketball is on the right track with Smith in charge. The question is: How much longer will he be in the Twin Cities? Smith's name is attached to seemingly every job that comes open. For his part, Smith remains adamant he doesn't want to be anywhere else. Yet the rumors keep smoldering, following him from Williams Arena to the NCAA Tournament and now into the offseason.
The question on the mind of every Gophers' fan is how much longer they'll be able to hang onto one of the best coaches in the country.
"I know how this business works," Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi said. "I'm not naive to realities."
Here is another reality: Smith could be enticed to stay simply because of all the talent the Gophers return. Minnesota loses just two players, while adding one of the nation's best recruiting classes.
The outgoing seniors comprised just 4.7 points per game. The Gophers return their top nine scorers from this season, including Lawrence Westbrook (12.6 points), Damian Johnson (9.8 points) and a pair of 7-footers in Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III — provided the lure of the NBA doesn't pull them away.
Minnesota should be better equipped next season to fight through a suddenly strong Big Ten, not break down and lose eight of its last 12, as it did to end the 2008-09 season. The dream ended with a loss to Texas in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
"We looked at each other right after the (Texas) game like, ‘All right, it's time to man up,'" sophomore Paul Carter said. "We need to get in this weight room, we need to get everything together this summer because we're not doing this again. We're not going to come out and lose in the first round."
"I have a job. I have a great job. We're enjoying Minnesota," Smith said. "We have no reason to be looking at anything else."
Of course, Gophers fans won't breathe any easier until all the vacancies are filled, and Smith is still locked away inside The Barn.