By Jesse Kramer
Tubby Smith still looks like a Gopher, but is he Golden? The one-time national champion coach, with Kentucky in 1998, has fallen out of favor with the University of Minnesota fan base in his sixth season at the school. Under Smith, the Golden Gophers are yet to have a winning season in the Big Ten, have never finished better than sixth place in the conference, and had not won a NCAA tournament game—until Friday night.
As a No. 11 seed, Minnesota clobbered No. 6 seed UCLA in the Round of 64, 83-63.
As a whole, the 2012-13 season has been quite disappointing for Minnesota. The Golden Gophers were ranked in the top 10 in January with a 15-1 record, but they proceeded to lose 10 of their final 15 regular season games. They finished that abysmal stretch with a loss to Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. Although they upset Indiana and Wisconsin during that time, they also lost to Northwestern, Nebraska and Purdue.
The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee matched Minnesota with UCLA, coached by Ben Howland, who is also on the hot seat.
Howland’s Bruins were considered a national title contender in the preseason with the additions of four top-100 recruits (Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Tony Parker) and North Carolina transfer Larry Drew II. The Bruins lost non-conference games to Georgetown, San Diego State and, most notably, Cal Poly at home. Even winning the Pac-12 regular season title with a 13-5 league record was not enough to salvage UCLA’s season; postseason success crucial, which is why Howland might be fired now that his team has been eliminated.
While Friday night’s result could cleave Howland from UCLA, it could also keep Smith and Minnesota united for another year.
This is now the Golden Gophers’ second straight season with postseason success. Although they missed the NCAA tournament last season, they did receive a bid to less prestigious NIT, where they made a run to Madison Square Garden and lost in the championship game to Stanford.
Tubby is now proving there is a reason for hope by building on that success with a victory in the Big Dance. As disappointing as the regular season was, the 2012-13 campaign has suddenly turned into Smith’s most successful one in Minneapolis.
But will one NCAA tournament victory overshadow the brutal performances in January, February, and even early March (and a relatively empty five seasons prior to that)?
Smith’s track record is mixed. During his first head coaching job at Tulsa, he took the Golden Hurricane to a pair of Sweet 16s. In two seasons at Georgia, he made two more NCAA tournaments, advancing to the Sweet 16 once. He won his national championship in his first season at Kentucky and took the Wildcats to three more Elite Eights and two additional Sweet 16s, but he was let go after failing to reach the second weekend in 2006 and 2007. Although he has struggled in the Big Ten, his overall track record is still pretty solid. With the postseason progress Smith has made at Minnesota this season, I would not be surprised to see the Golden Gophers hand on to him for another season.
Right now, though, the question remains in the air, but Smith will get another opportunity to demonstrate his worth. He can continue to increase his job security with a win against No. 3 seed Florida on Sunday and an appearance in his first Sweet 16 since 2005.