Tonight is a great night of college basketball for a number of reasons. Tennessee plays Vanderbilt in a rivalry game that will go a long way in telling me which of those teams is legit and which could be a pretender. Louisville will let us know where they are after two months of underachieving when they continue one of the more underrated rivalries in the country, their continued series with Marquette. But the main event, at least for me, will occur on an oddly elevated court in the middle of snow country in Minneapolis, where the Indiana Hoosiers take on Tubby Smith and his Minnesota Gophers. After putting a scare in the hearts of Michigan State on the road, Tubby has a chance to get a marquee national win tonight against a team that he owned while at UK (8-2). For all intents and purposes it is a coming out party for the Tub on ESPN and it will go a long way in forming many in the country’s initial opinion on his tenure with the Gopher program.
But what will the game mean….and more specifically, what does Tubby’s likely success in the Great North say about him as a coach. Rick Bozich of the Courier Journal (who is now my radio colleague and who I have come to like a great deal), wrote a great column today on this very subject. The gist of the column is a viewpoint that I think likely represents the best overall take on the Tubby Smith/UK situation. Bozich essentially says, hey Tubby is a very good coach when he is at a program that is Top 50 and not Top 5. However he wasnt inclined to make the necessary staff changes to succeed on the Top 5 level, so he is where he should be and where he will do very well.
Often lost in the “Tubby Sucks/Tubby is great” debate is the exact point that Rick makes. Tubby haters never acknowledge what a good coach he really is, shown during his time at Tulsa and Georgia and during various successful years at Kentucky (99,00,03,04). Tubby defenders rarely acknowledge that towards the end of his tenure, the recruiting completely fell off the map….due in large part to his lack of anything resembling a quality staff….and his inability in the last couple of years to put together a team that could contend nationally. Tubby Smith could take virtually any group of kids and “coach em up” to become a tournament team. But he didnt have the cojones to change the staff and get some great recruiters to bring in players who he didnt need to coach up, but who were ready to win. That ultimately made UK not the right place for him.
But Minnesota is such a place. He will take the Gopher program to multiple NCAA tournaments, occasionally making a run to the Sweet 16 or Final 8. I doubt we will see the Gophers in a Final 4, but he will give Minnesota their best run of consistent success that the program has ever had. Let there be no doubt, I pull for Tubby Smith in Minnesota. I think he is a great guy and a very good coach…..one that I want to see win because he (a) was a part of the program here and (b) is one of the finest people I have been around. I think he could have succeeded here given another set of circumstances. Specifically he had to replace Hanson and Rigot and he wasnt going to do it. Thus the decision to leave was the best for all parties. UK is in a better position now than they would have been had Smith stayed and brought back his entire staff. Now the Cats move on with Billy Clyde at the helm and the future very bright. But that doesnt mean that when the ball is tipped on the frozen tundra tonight I wont be pulling for the Gophers to “Fill the Tub.” As Rick Bozich said today, Gopher land is the perfect place for Tubby to do his thing….and I for one hope he does.