It took more than $13 million to lure head coach Tubby Smith to Minnesota nearly four years ago. The ensuing honeymoon period consisted of three straight 20+ win seasons. To the casual observer, everything was going to plan. But here we are in 2010-11, the fourth year of Smith's deal, and the Gophers are a complete mess.
Ranked as high as No. 15 in the AP Poll, the Gophers now sit at an underwhelming 17-11 with an awful 6-10 record in the Big Ten. Victories against conference opponents have been elusive to say the least, but the same can be said for dozens of top notch programs around the country. Still, that frustration led Smith to publicly lambaste his players for a lack of effort and poor work ethic, even going as far as to call them a bunch of "boys". Smith also shot down any hopes for an NCAA Tournament bid after their latest loss, a move that felt forced and a tad unnecessary.
Constructive criticism used properly as a coaching tool can be very, very beneficial, but Smith's actions appear different. It feels like he's genuinely unhappy in his current role, and is unsure what to do about it or who to take it out on. Those same players he's so quick to rip into are his recruits, and for better or worse, the future of the program. Smith is the person who brought these kids aboardWorse yet, one look at Minnesota's roster for 2011-12 doesn't exactly inspire much confidence in Smith's ability to turn things around.
That's because each of Smith's starting guards, Blake Hoffarber and Al Nolen, are seniors. This is especially troubling because the Gophers have a gaping hole in their backcourt right now, and Hoffarber and Nolen are the only kids on the team who have any semblance of Smith's confidence. Even with Rodney Williams, Trevor Mbakwe, and Ralph Sampson III likely back for another year, Minnesota will be unanimously projected near the bottom of the Big Ten standings for good reason. Does Smith really want to spend a full season as a potential bottom-feeder in a power conference? Judging by how he has handled himself lately, the answer to that question is quite obvious.
It's easy to forget that Oregon came calling for Smith's services last spring. Even though Oregon's poorly-conceived PR campaign saw them offer deals to everyone from Tom Izzo to Daffy Duck, Smith had absolutely zero reason to take the offer seriously at the time. Now, you can bet he'll be listening intently to every pitch that comes his way. Miraculous that one year later and a Pac-10 job he was so quick to spurn now looks like paradise.
The questions are endless. Does Smith bolt for greener pastures at the first opportunity? Will he stick around to pick his Gophers back up off the floor and honor the final three years of his contract? Or does Minnesota want to lay down the trump card and cut ties as soon as possible? Whatever the case, the future of Minnesota hoops could hang in the balance.
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