Tubby Smith's Minnesota team upset top-ranked Indiana Tuesday, but Gophers' fans want to see success in the NCAA Tournament.
MINNEAPOLIS (WDRB) -- They groaned when Tubby Smith's name was announced in Williams Arena Tuesday night. You didn't have to strain to hear a string of boos.
The same thing happened again whenever the University of Minnesota basketball team took too much time to get a shot against the Hoosiers. The public displays of disaffection were mixed into the energy of a packed gymnasium, waiting to come out.
This was on a remarkable night when Smith's team played as well as it has all season, showing the value of aggressive, confident, edgy play by taking down top-ranked Indiana, 77-73. By game's end, there were no groans. Giddy students were too distracted by their opportunity to storm the court. Veteran fans stood back snapping pictures.
That set up the surreal post-game scene inside the media room. Sid Hartman, the acerbic, 92-year-old columnist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, assumed the role of outspoken Tubby Smith defender.
Before Smith and Indiana coach Tom Crean arrived to answer questions, Hartman stood in the front of the room, looking for critics and glaring. He stepped into a hallway, interacting with fans. Four or five times Hartman asked where all the "as@*&%$ were that wanted Tubby Smith fired."
They're out there. They always are. Grumbling about Tubby Smith is not just a sport at the University of Kentucky.
And they'll be back if Smith doesn't finish this season with more gusto than he has finished his first five in the Land of 10,000 Excuses. A @FireTubby Twitter account was still percolating a day after Minnesota's sexy win. Many Gopher fans want to see more than 40 good minutes against Number One.
They've got a legal pad packed with issues about Smith. It reads like something borrowed from Kentucky-area talk shows before Smith ended his 10-season run at UK to move to Minnesota in 2007:
Plodding style of play; absence of signature recruits; February swoons; March missteps; the 10-loss mojo; underwhelming charisma; the six-year urge for change that bubbles up at many programs in the current sports culture.
"The game last night just shows how terribly the #gophers have underachieved all year long with top-notch talent," was one of the messages @FireTubby delivered to its 330 followers.
The talk about Smith's future has been so public that many fans understand that although Smith signed a contract extension prior to this season, his buyout is a manageable $2.5 million. Perhaps new athletic director Norwood Teague deserves the chance to hire his own guy. Teague has ties to VCU. Doesn't Shaka Smart coach there?
There are three top 50 high school prospects nationally in the class of 2014 from the Minneapolis area -- and Smith has not locked any of them up. They fret that Tyus Jones of Apple Valley, ranked third in that class, will prefer to play point guard for John Calipari, Bill Self or Mike Krzyzewski.
Smith has given his critics other material to fertilize the debate. Prior to Tuesday night, Smith's team had failed to score more than 62 points in the Gophers' previous six games. After a 15-1 start and three wins to open the Big Ten season, Minnesota lost eight of its next 11.
Time to practice dodge ball? Wiffle ball? No, Smith had a different idea. He gathered his players last weekend and reminded them there is life away from basketball. Relax, fellas. He recruited a counselor to share the same message. Even Smith needed a jolt of joy.
"We all need somebody to lift us up," Smith said. "I look upstairs to the Good Lord … Basketball is great. But don't buy into all the crap you listen to and read."
Did it work?
Indiana's inability to answer Trevor Mbakwe's thunderous 21 points and 12 rebounds from the opening tip made it work for the Gophers Tuesday. After the game, Crean said Smith was a coach who belonged in the Hall of Fame.
The Gophers should finish the regular season with sizzle because Minnesota has entered the user-friendly portion of its schedule -- Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue. Sounds like three more wins, a 10-8 Big Ten record and a so-so NCAA tournament resume. Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com lists the Gophers as an 11-seed.
Few would be shocked if the Gophers win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament, especially if Mbakwe keeps leveling everybody in his path. But even that won't change all of the dynamics surrounding Smith and his critics.
Remember: This is not basketball Valhalla. At best, it's the seventh best job in the 12-team Big Ten. Williams Arena is old, cramped and a half-century past its prime. Today's recruits don't care that Dave Winfield, Mychal Thompson and Kris Humphries played there.
The practice facility that Smith thought he would have by now has not been built. The contrast between the uninspired basketball commitment, and the Gophers' splendid on-campus football stadium and hockey arena are difficult to overlook. There's not much evidence that says winning absolutely matters at Minnesota.
Plus, there is legitimate competition for attention from the Vikings, Twins, Timberwolves and Wild.
Smith has not provided much juice for change. He's yet to win an NCAA Tournament game since leaving Lexington. He's 0-2.
Guess what? That is part of the Minnesota basketball culture. Dan Monson made the tournament at Gonzaga before he came to town -- and Monson made it back to the tournament after he left for Long Beach. But Monson whiffed going against Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan and the rest of the Big Ten.
The Gophers last won an NCAA Tournament game in 1997 under Clem Haskins, but that led to the program's visit to NCAA probation. Winning and NCAA trouble also happened before at Minnesota.
Minnesota is a daunting job for any coach -- and today the coach hearing the noise is Tubby Smith.