By Mike Gallagher
The buzzer sounded, and the battle of two bubble teams ended with the Gophers coming out losers once again.
Surely their 77-74 overtime loss to Northwestern doomed their hopes of making the tournament, as they dropped to 14-10 (5-7) and still had two Big Ten stalwarts (Wisconsin, Purdue) coming to The Barn.
Coming off two disheartening losses, having to play one of the best teams in the Big Ten, and missing three talented players that were expected to be key contributors this year, how did the team manage to pull it together and save themselves from the college basketball abyss of nothingness?
One man; Tubby Smith.
After listening to countless hours and reading numerous articles about how overpaid and content he is in Minnesota, along with the ones about him not doing his job, maybe Tubby finally got sick of it.
The reason this team is relevant is because of Tubby Smith. When he took over this program in 2007, Dan Monson had left it with nine wins the year previous.
It took one season for Tubby to get the Gophers back to the respectability, as he’s posted two 20 win seasons since he took over.
Tubby doesn’t want to let his streak of 16 straight 20 win seasons, or the Gophers shot at an NCAA title bid, fall by the wayside. He’s proven his worth to this program already and continues to show it on a daily basis.
Forget his recruiting class this year, it was out of his control. Tubby couldn’t have known these ridiculous events would happen in such unfortunate succession. Tubby has gotten the talent here, the talent just hasn’t been able to stay out of unfortunate situations. Despite the knocks on his recruiting, people seem to consistently forget he did recruit Tayshaun Prince, Keith Bogans, and Ron Mercer among others while at Kentucky.
Forget the Al Nolen situation, there’s no way Tubby could’ve helped that or controlled the awful timing of the suspension.
Forget that Ralph Sampson and Colton Iverson haven’t built off their first years at Minnesota. Sampson has shown flashes this year of improvement and with one more offseason, could be a legitimate threat in the middle. Iverson was clearly a project when he came in who’s ceiling wasn’t insanely high anyway. To get one starter from this duo should be considered a success.
What people should focus on is Tubby’s ability, as all the great coaches have, to motivate and bring his team back from desperate situations into contention.
Another example relating to this happened Monday night, with Connecticut facing a tough game against West Virginia, but one they needed to win to keep their tournament hopes alive. Jim Calhoun is obviously one of the best coaches in the country, and got his team up for the contest, which they won 73-62.
Tubby Smith did the same thing for the Wisconsin game. Two bad losses in a row, a team struggling for survival, and Tubby pushed the buttons to get the guys to respond and get the W 68-52.
With the momentum carrying over into Saturday’s win over Indiana, the Gophers now try to continue their resurrection as they face one of their largest tasks of the year, with #3 Purdue heading into The Barn Wednesday.
Purdue already handled Minnesota in West Lafayette earlier this year 79-60, in a game Minnesota’s offense never really did get going, shooting 31% from the field. Purdue has now won nine in a row, including wins over all of the other top five teams in the conference.
On Minnesota’s side, their confidence is back and they’re in their home arena where they’ve only lost twice this year.
The argument could be made that a loss would eliminate Minnesota from contention, barring a miraculous Big Ten tournament run. However, with a solid performance Wednesday, which doesn’t have to be a win, along with a few things going right for the Gophers, the tide could turn in their favor on Selection Sunday.
Many outlets have the Big Ten getting four teams in the dance for sure, with Illinois being on the bubble with Minnesota. The Gophers and Illini square off Saturday in Champaign, and if the Gophers could pick up the road win, it’s hard to see how Illinois gets in over Minnesota should the Gophers win out from there and Illinois loses at OSU and even if they do pick up the home win in their season finale against Wisconsin.
Factoring in the next bridge they would have to cross, the Big Ten tournament would probably have to hold two victories for the Gophers should they lose to Purdue Wednesday. Currently being the six seed this is not out of the realm of possibility, as they would face the league’s bottom team and move on to face the three seed, which at the moment is Michigan State, a team the Gophers have played tough twice this year.
Obviously other things need to happen with mid-major bracket busters and bubble teams like Connecticut and Florida missing out, but it’s still a definite possibility.
“They still know we still have a chance to get to postseason play, and that’s the goal,” said Smith in his conference call Monday. “Our team’s captains, Lawrence Westbrook and Damian Johnson, have been very effective lately. They showed a lot of character and a lot of spirit in the practice on Friday, so it carried over. The way you play is the way you practice.”
If Tubby Smith could get this Gopher team into the tournament with all the ups and downs the team has gone through with their roster this year, the critics would have to be silenced. Clearly the Gophers are nothing better than a bubble team without the players they’ve lost, and Tubby should be commended for re-focusing the team and getting them to battle through the adversity they’ve faced.
The best coaches always have something left up their sleeve, and don’t think Tubby will let the Gophers go down without emptying that button up.