Tubby Smith continues to say all the right things, but the more the Gophers win, the stronger the rumors intensify over how long Smith will remain in Minneapolis.
Smith has done a remarkable turnaround job. The Gophers are preparing for a huge Feb. 4 game at first place Michigan State. Minnesota is 18-3 and fresh off an impressive 23-point smothering of Illinois, in which the Gophers picked apart the Illini defensively.
As jobs around the country open up, Smith’s name inevitably is the first to surface. It has already happened at Alabama and Georgia, since Smith was once very comfortable in the SEC as Kentucky’s head coach. Then there are intriguing possibilities like Arizona, which is still searching for a long-term replacement to Lute Olson.
For now, though, Smith is comfortable in the Twin Cities. And he is growing tired of the constant rumors and speculation.
“I know there’s a lot of speculation — Internet, media — about my status,” he said. “I’m happy here in Minnesota. I’m not looking for any other jobs. We’ve got a great recruiting class coming in. I’m excited about where the Gopher program is, and I’m not a candidate for any jobs. So you know up front, so we don’t have any more questions about it.”
The emphatic 23-point victory against Illinois on Jan. 29 snapped a 20-game losing streak to the Illini. Minnesota hadn’t beaten Illinois since Feb. 3, 1999.
The 36 points was the lowest output for a Gophers league opponent since Indiana mustered 32 points on Jan. 27, 1951.
Tubby Smith has been able to keep everyone’s minutes down by continuing to use a deep and productive bench. Smith hinted when conference play began that minutes might be drying up for some guys, yet with nine games remaining, the Gophers have 11 players averaging double figures in minutes and no one playing more than 28 per night.
When Lawrence Westbrook scores a lot, the Gophers win. There is no disputing the correlation. Westbrook has led the Gophers in scoring nine times this season, and they’ve won every game.
Freshman Ralph Sampson III might be learning how to use his massive 7-foot frame to his advantage. He went to the free-throw line 10 times against Illinois, easily a career high. Prior to that, he hadn’t attempted more than four free throws in any game. He is shooting 82 percent from the line, so if Sampson continues to draw fouls, he could be a miserable matchup inside for opponents.
Damian Johnson is emerging as a quiet, consistent rebounding force. Since a Jan. 15 win against Wisconsin, Johnson has posted rebounding totals of 5, 4, 5, 6 and 5. He often gets overshadowed by his 7-foot teammates, but for the season, Johnson is averaging 4.3 rebounds per game.
IN FOCUS: The Gophers opened the conference season against Michigan State on New Year’s Eve and lost by 12. They get the rematch in East Lansing. It’s a huge game for the Gophers, who trail MSU by two games in the loss column and can ill-afford to drop to three games back at this point. It also begins a stretch of four of the next five games away from Williams Arena.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters — G Lawrence Westbrook, G Al Nolen, F Damian Johnson, F Ralph Sampson III, C Colton Iverson. Key Subs — G Blake Hoffarber, F Paul Carter, F Jamal Abu-Shamala, G/F Travis Busch, G Devoe Joseph, G Devron Bostick.
Purdue 70, Minnesota 62
Minnesota 67, Indiana 63
Minnesota 59, Illinois 36
at Michigan State, Wednesday, Feb. 4
at Ohio State, Saturday, Feb. 7
vs. Indiana, Tuesday, Feb. 10
at Penn State, Saturday, Feb. 14