After leading Minnesota from the darkness and into the NCAA Tournament in just two years, Tubby Smith can do whatever he pleases. Including telling off his boss.
Minnesota AD Joel Maturi was on the phone filling in university President Robert Bruininks about the Gophers’ fate when Smith — not knowing it was Maturi — became clearly annoyed by the disruption in the back of the room. Finally, Smith barked for the person on the cell phone to take the call outside. Then he learned it was Maturi and cracked up.
“Somebody should have told me that was my boss,” Smith said, his head hitting the table. “I didn’t just do that.”
After all the good Smith has done in the Twin Cities, he’ll quickly be forgiven. Smith arrived to find a team coming off its worst season in 111 years and a program still recovering from a blistering academic scandal.
He promptly won 20 games in each of his two seasons. Now he has the Gophers (22-10) back in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 10 seed, where they’ll face No. 7 Texas (22-11) on Thursday in Greensboro, N.C.
Minnesota was one of the bubble teams unsure of its tournament fate. Ultimately, with seven Big Ten teams making the NCAA Tournament, the selection committee was forced to choose between the Gophers and Penn State. The Gophers won, despite losing five of their last eight games following a 16-1 start.
“To be going there after two years here,” Smith said, “we really are pleased with where we are with the program.”
COACH: Tubby Smith, two seasons at Minnesota, first year in NCAA Tournament.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: The Gophers used a relatively soft nonconference schedule to race out to a 16-1 start, then made it stand as they ended the season with five losses in their last eight games. The Gophers fell to Michigan in their regular season finale, then beat Northwestern in the first round of the tournament before losing to Michigan State in the quarterfinals. That 70-64 victory against Louisville in December now looms huge for the Gophers, since the Cardinals are considered the top seed in the tournament.
THEY’LL ADVANCE IF: They limit turnovers. Minnesota’s biggest problems this season have come when it coughed up the ball. The Gophers’ ability to switch defenses can fluster most teams, and the ability to throw out two long bodies in Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III will negate Texas’ Dexter Pittman. Now if only the Gophers can hang onto the ball.
SCOUTING REPORT: Minnesota’s depth and ability to rotate players has been well documented, but it has also left the Gophers without a real go-to player. Lawrence Westbrook is the only player averaging double figures in points (12.4), but even he was benched for a stretch late in the season. The Gophers win with defense, but have been prone to turnovers for prolonged stretches. Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III give them a pair of athletic 7-foot freshmen, difficult for any team to match up against. In order for Minnesota to make a run, Damian Johnson or Devron Bostick will have to get hot and help carry the scoring load.
Al Nolen has gotten his assist/turnover ratio back under control during the month of March. In four games, Nolen has 10 assists and one turnover, a drastic improvement over his previous six games, when he had 18 assists and 17 turnovers.
The 22 victories are the fourth-most in school history. The 21 regular-season victories rank as the second-most in school history.
This is Minnesota’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2005 and its sixth appearance overall.
Devron Bostick’s defensive lapses have cost him playing time this season, but he played well in the conference tournament. Over his last two games, he has played a total of 46 minutes and scored 23 points after not playing at all in the previous two games. Bostick’s scoring punch is enough to warrant playing time on a team that is at times offensively challenged.
Lawrence Westbrook continues to struggle shooting 3-pointers. Westbrook has now made 3 of his last 15 3-point attempts, dating back to a Feb. 26 loss to Illinois. For the season, Westbrook is shooting 35% on 3s.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “Tubby deserves the credit. Tubby, I believe, is one of the great coaches in America. I think what I love about him is that he, which is true of all good coaches, gets the best out of each individual young person that plays for him.” - Minnesota Athletic Director Joel Maturi, to the Star Tribune
Minnesota 66, Northwestern 53 (Big Ten tournament first round)
Michigan State 64, Minnesota 56 (Big Ten tournament quarterfinals)
vs. Texas, Thursday, March 19, NCAA Tournament, first round, East Regional