Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Reusse Targets U Fanbase, Tubby, Royce White

I've defended Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse in the past. I've even (gasp!) agreed with him.

But his column today criticizing the Gophers for continuing to pursue Royce White after an admitted academic mistake at DeLaSalle--which preempted his departure from the school--is off base in my opinion. Here's the gist of Reusse's take:

We are nine years removed from Minnesota becoming the basketball program by which all others compare themselves when it comes to academic fraud.

There's no evidence that White's verbal commitment was greeted with hesitation by coach Tubby Smith, or his boss, athletic director Joel Maturi, or Maturi's bosses.

They can't comment on the qualities of recruits before they sign, but certainly it was in Smith's power to tell White, "Let's cool it here until next fall -- make sure you have your act together academically and elsewhere before you make an announcement."

And if Smith wasn't willing to take that stand on White, then Maturi should have ordered his coach to deliver this message: Tell the young man the offer is off the table until he proves himself somewhere other than the basketball court.

Reusse's suggestion certainly sounds like a reasonable one. But he fails to mention that Tubby Smith and the Gophers can change their minds on Royce at any time. Tubby very well might have told Royce to keep his house in order or else he'd be kicked out quicker than Brandon Smith. Additionally, should White fail to qualify academically, there isn't much Tubby or Maturi could do to sneak him past the admissions office.

Reusse goes on to take potshots at the University of Minnesota fan base, calling us fans "Gopher Acreage." This would be sort of cute if it were the first time Reusse had taken the phrase Red Sox Nation and adjusted it to mock the fan bases of the local franchises. A reference to Twins Region comes to mind.

After that unfortunate bit of attacking his own readership, Reusse goes on to suggest that playing basketball for Hopkins--where White is now enrolled--is tantamount to admitting zero academic interest. He bashes Kris Humprhies and Dan Coleman, Hopkins grads both, by stating: "If White's one season there preps him as well for the Gophers as did the Hopkins experience for Kris Humphries and Dan Coleman, Tubby has a chance -- come the fall of 2009 -- to find himself with a combination of a ball hog featuring inconsistent effort."

Reusse is right on his analysis of both Humphries and Coleman. But to assume that White will be anything like them is simply a reach on Reusse's part.

And the last point that Reusse failed to mention is that during Humphries' stint at the U and for the majority of Coleman's stay, the coach on the sidelines was Dan Monson, he who developed the reputation of letting his players run roughshod over him. Monson sold his soul and the team aspect of the college game and gave into Humphries and Rick Rickert. Tubby Smith is no Dan Monson. Tubby has groomed many players. He's seen as a father figure by many of his former players.

So, unless Royce White screws up again, and until we see players walk over Tubby Smith, let's give White, Maturi and Tubby the benefit of the doubt.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Brewster's 'Pretty Darn Good Impressive' Quotes, Vol. 1

The rhetorical genius that is Tim Brewster was foisted upon us last season. It was, if I might state, the saving grace of an otherwise repulsive season. With this in mind, I feel it is my duty, my calling even, to chronicle for posterity's sake the shear amazingness of Tim Brewster's oratory.

As long as PJS is in existence, and wherever else I might blog, I shall continue to highlight the savant-like poetry that flows through Brewster. Before we get to the first installment, let's review a couple gems from a season ago.

1. Getting Knifed is Good, After All: "I asked them in the locker room after the game, 'Who feels like they've been stuck in the gut with a searing knife?' Brewster said after a 21-16 loss to Iowa. "Everybody did, and I said that's good. That means we've got a chance."

PJS Comment: Not just any knife, but a searing knife. Searing knives are so popular that if you Google "searing knife," PJS' previous coverage of the above quote is on the first page of results. Also, heretofore, I was under the impression that getting 'stuck in the gut' with a knife, any knife, is a bad thing. Wrong.

2. Choking Asses: "We're going to choke their asses out!!!"

PJS Comment: Since I watched Brewster say this (with witnesses, I swear) on the BTN before North Dakota State throttled the Gophers, I've tried to choke an ass. I've taken different angles, grips and approaches. Nothing has worked. Until someone can show me how this is done, I'm going to maintain that Brewster has some freaky side no one, except for perhaps Telly Hughes, cares to really understand.

Special Comment from Dallas Cowboys blogger The Landry Hat: I watched my first and last Gophers game the night I heard their head coach yell the word "ass." The infamous "Choke their asses out" comment somehow got through the world-class news operation at the BTN. My jaw dropped. I wasn't sure if I was watching a college football game or a UFC preview.

3. Very, Very, Good, On The Verge: "I believe this team is on the verge of greatness. We have an excellent group of young men. Very, very excellent. This is a critical stretch of games for us, and we're very very excited to be playing in them. We're trying hard to win. Very, very hard, and I think it's going to pay off Saturday."

PJS Comment: OK, so Black Heart, Gold Pants made this up in the laugh-out-loud fake interview linked above. But tell me the truth now. You believed he really said that, didn't you?

DRUM ROLL PLEASE!

It's now time for Vol. 1 in "Brewster's Pretty Darn Good Impressive Quotes."

Darn Good Impressive: "Our kids are starting to play with an edge a little bit. I think it was a pretty darn good impressive display of defense."

PJS Comment: What's impressive is Brewster's ability to string adjectives together. The quote is from the PiPress after Friday night's Spring Game. I had partially worried that Brewster had learned his lesson from a season ago. Thankfully, he has not, and I'm encouraged that he will continue to provide rhetorical genius in the season and years to come.

*** Please send submissions, along with comments to be published, in future editions of 'Brewster's Pretty Darn Good Impressive Quotes." Email pagingjimshikenjanski@yahoo.com.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Friday Randomness

PJS Note: The next part in the basketball year in review is still on it's way, but for now I'm going to launch a new installment which will run every Friday. I'll touch on smaller items that don't deserve a singular post and other random things, from movies to other good reads from the blogosphere.

** Free advice for Minnesota football coach Tim Brewster: As a public relations professional myself (yes, I'm now a paid flack after leaving the dying print newspaper business), I fully understand your desire to drum up interest in your product by any means necessary. I also understand your desire to re-brand the Golden Gophers football program. These are good goals all.

However, for you to state that you've spent the last six months working with Nike to design the program, well, that might give some the perception that you've been playing with crayons instead of figuring out how to stop an opposing offense (we do remember your first version of Gophers were an NCAA worst in this department).

There were some other minor mistakes in the introduction of these new uniforms. Timing, my friend, is everything. Having a press event at the same time that Tubby Smith received a verbal from local big man Royce White and the Vikings signed and traded for Jared Allen, well, that was poor timing. Perhaps the press availability could have been rescheduled. Obviously you'd have to come up with an excuse for this, but most of us fans, and the three reporters who attended, would understand if you were taking part in a coaching camp somewhere.

Finally, you said "As you can see, it's a clean, classic look. It's about clean. It's about sleek. It's about pride."

I have no idea what this means. The uniforms themselves? Decent. But anything is better than the gold-on-gold atrocity we saw last season. See them via a STrib video here. While I didn't mind the new unis, Marxist Gopher on the other hand ...

** You know, I have been putting off coverage of football. 1-11 was beyond painful after Brewster's penchant for bad public relations set expectations sky high and then the season ended up worse then something Jim Wacker put together. However, I guess I can look forward to Brewster's defenders coming on here and telling me I'm too hard on the guy.

** Maybe we should have some fun with Brewster. How about a nickname contest? Twins bloggers gave Carlos Gomez--geez, does this kid swing out of his shoes on every pitch--the lame nickname "Go-Go." We can come up with something for Brewster. Myself and others have previously called him "Punky Brewster," and "Brother Brewster," and while I really like the former, I'm not sure how original it is. Drop your suggestion in the comments or send me an email.

** Without uttering a word last week, Tubby Smith won another round in the public relations realm between the two second-year Minnesota coaches. We covered the verbal commitment from Royce White here. Others were impressed. CSTV says "Tubby gains huge college pledge." The hope is the White signing is a precursor for even more talent coming to Minnesota.

** Michael Rand at the STrib's RandBall interviewed Erin Andrews. Here's Part 1. And Part 2. I completely agree with everyone who likes to look at Andrews, but some of the stuff is a little nuts? Millions of hits for Youtube vids of her? Who has time for this stuff?

** Saw "Smart People" last night with Miss PJS. I'm somewhat of a movie buff. Ellen Page was in this and it was a decent follow-up for her after the success of Juno. In this she plays a smart-allecky Young Republican. It was a fairly well done movie and Dennis Quaid, who usually does nothing for me, plays the role of a bitter, widowed, know-it-all college professor well. Watchable and somewhat humorous? Yes. Must see? No. Reason to see it? Thomas Haden Church is pretty damn funny, if his usual monotone self.

** Speaking of movies, I had a conversation with a friend yesterday about the best movies of the past year. We both agreed that "Gone, Baby, Gone," was vastly underrated. Casey Affleck put on a great performance (much better than the snore-fest known as "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford).

That's it for today. I'll be back early next week with the next installment (promise!) in the Year in Review series.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

White Verbal Another Step In Right Direction

Following his impressive five-man 2008 class, Tubby Smith received a verbal commitment, as reported today by the PiPress and Star Tribune, from standout Minnesota prospect Royce White.

We'll get to some, in my opinion, ill-conceived concerns about White in a second. But to begin, it must be said that this commitment, should it stand up to other coaches trying to poach White for their own teams, is the first step in locking down Minnesota's borders. Too often we've seen the best talent in the state head to Wisconsin (too many players to name), Kansas, Duke, Marquette, Michigan State and elsewhere. White is hands down the #1 prospect in Minnesota's class of 2009, and is ranked as such by Rivals. Here's a quote that recruiting service gave to the PiPress (story linked above).

"Royce is the best player in Minnesota," said Jerry Meyer, national recruiting analyst for Rivals. "Tubby took his recruiting at Minnesota to another level by getting Royce."

Rivals has White, a 6'7 forward, ranked as the 32nd best player in the country, regardless of position. White received interest from your usual smorgasbord of elite college programs, from UCLA and USC to your Big Ten programs. His decision to commit early to Tubby Smith is a great sign. It's an indication that Tubby Smith will go after top talent, will work to close the borders and to dramatically change the talent level on the Gophers' roster.

So, why Minnesota? Here's what White is quoted as saying via Rivals:
"It was an easy decision after looking at all my options", White said in the initial release. "Academically, Minnesota and the Big Ten for that matter provides excellent opportunities, and basketball wise there's not a better coach to play for then Coach Smith. After looking at some of the players headed to the U, the fact that it's close to home, and the simple fact that I love the Gophers, my decision was very easy."I respect coach Smith, I'm real good friends with him, I talk to him a lot, he's been a real advocate for me, he gives me really good advise and things like that. I think the Gophers are doing great things and they are on the upswing. I just like coach Smith a lot and I like his staff a lot."

A few things here. Number one, Smith appears to be a sort of mentor for White, who has had to deal with some unfortunate negative publicity for what he has described as an academic mistake while at DeLaSalle. Second, in the above quotes and in other Royce quotes in other articles, it's clear that Tubby Smith made him priority number one since Tubby arrived from Kentucky last spring. Tubby knew he needed this blue chipper for a number of reasons: to demonstrate the borders are closing, to improve the talent level on the roster and to end the perception that Tubby struggles in the recruiting department.

Now, there are some out there in the blogosphere and on the Minnesota message boards who will have you believe that signing Royce White is tantamount to giving Clem Haskins control over academics at the U. I think this line of thinking is far-fetched. Royce White is a kid after all. He made a mistake, one he's admitted and has taken responsibility for. That right there is a sign of someones character. Last time I checked 16 and 17 year olds make mistakes. White made his. He was embarrassed by it. And he's since found himself a mentor in Tubby Smith.

As I wrote previously, I trust Tubby Smith's judgment when talk comes to whether or not the Gophers should take a risk on a certain player. Unless White gives us another, more substantial reason to be concerned, I'd suggest Minnesota fans look forward to what Ralph Sampson III, Devoe Joseph, Royce White and others will do together on the raised floor at Minnesota.

If RSIII, Devoe and the class of 2008 was the first step in turning around the Minnesota basketball program, the White verbal is step two.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Thoughts On Vince Taylor and Krys Faber

VINCE TAYLOR STAYS: I'd like to say how pleased I am to see that Vince Taylor did not get the Western Kentucky job. While I of course wish him nothing but the best, his position on Tubby's staff, I believe, is very important.

Taylor was probably as perfect a fit as there could have been for the Hilltoppers. Taylor has the Kentucky roots. He surely knows the recruiting scene in the commonwealth. But the job went to former WKU assistant Ken McDonald, who was earning his stripes at Texas.

Tubby Smith came to Minnesota with the reputation as a great bench coach but a lackadaisical recruiter. Now, I'm not sure I buy that completely. Tubby had some very solid classes at UK, but because he didn't land the likes of Tyler Hansborough and was one of many coaches who underestimated the ability of Chris Lofton, Tubby was tagged with being a soft recruiter.

Not so for Vince Taylor. As I discussed last year when he was hired, Taylor possesses quite the pedigree. He's worked for Denny Crum and Rick Pitino at Louisville. He played at Duke. Taylor also had a journeyman's professional playing career, making various international stops. That has helped him procure a reputation as a recruiter with a knack for international success. We haven't seen that play out too much so far at Minnesota--unless you consider Devoe Joseph's recruitment from Canada and international "get."

No matter how much credit Taylor deserves for Tubby Smith's first class, which ranks in the top 10 to 20 nationally depending on your expert of choice, Taylor has the drive the Gophers need to build on that. Taylor will certainly be a head man someday given his track record and coaching pedigree. But for Minnesota's sake, let's hope he continues to help Tubby hit the recruiting trail.

And, hey, Tubby Smith isn't going to be around forever. Maybe Joel Maturi should have a conversation with Taylor about grooming the assistant to take over down the road. That's certainly a path that has worked well for Purdue, for instance.

KRYS FABER: After flirting with the Gophers for months and telling recruiting services that the Gophers were his #1 choice, Los Angeles big man Krys Faber has decided on DePaul, according to the PiPress' Gophers blog.

Minnesota's need to add big men is no secret. The Gophers lacked size this past season, and the departures of Dan Coleman and Spencer Tollackson certainly won't help that cause. The additions of Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III will give the Gophers the same number of interior players they had this past year, and that includes hybrid, inside-outside threat Damian Johnson.

The Gophers' incoming class is already five players deep. But because Travis Busch and Jamal Abu-Shamala were on one year contracts, Tubby has room to add more talent. Now, we should keep some scholarships available for next year when Minnesota products Royce White and Rodney Williams become available, but the need to add big men, and simply talent for that matter, is important now.

The Gophers are still in the running for point guard Verdell Jones, who is also being sought after by Tom Crean at Indiana, Bruce Pearl at Tennessee and Billy Gillispie at Kentucky. Point guard is the other glaring need for the Gophers. Al Nolen played OK as a freshman. Tubby's recruitment of Jones would also indicate that the coaching staff views Devoe Joseph as a two-guard.

We'll see how this plays out, but no matter where Jones goes, this has been an impressive recruiting class for the Gophers. But let's hope Jones lands in Dinkytown, if for no other reason then we can say that Tubby Smith, for the second time, landed a recruit his successor was after at UK.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

10 new players and one departing coach

The men's hockey season is less than a month into the offseason, but there has been plenty of news that has come out from the program.

First, 10 players have signed to play for next season. They are Jake Hansen, Sam Lofquist, Nico Sacchetti, Grant Scott and Jordan Schroeder, who all signed during last week’s early signing period. In addition, Mike Dorr, Brandon Martell and Taylor Matson, who signed previously, will also join the Golden Gophers.

The other two are Aaron Ness of Roseau and Joey Miller of Wayzata, who made his decision to play with former Trojan teammate Tony Lucia Saturday.

“We have a good mix of size, speed and skill with this group,” Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said. “This will ensure that we get the numbers back up to where we need them to be on our team. These kids have had the opportunity to play in the USHL and Ann Arbor (with the U.S. under-18 junior team), which should ease their transition to college hockey.

“We also have recruited three players capable of playing center, which has been a need for us to bring in natural centers,” Lucia said.

Hansen, a 6-1, 182-pound wing from White Bear Lake, is playing with Sioux Falls of the USHL. A third-round draft choice of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft (86th overall), he currently has six goals and five assists for 11 points while playing in all 13 games. Hansen totaled 28 goals and 43 assists for 71 points in 25 games last season at White Bear Lake High School before joining Sioux Falls for the final 15 games of the season.

Lofquist, a 6-1, 190-pound defenseman from Faribault, is in his second season with the U.S. national development team and has three goals and two assists for five points in 18 games. He scored a power play goal in the team’s 3-1 exhibition loss to Minnesota at Mariucci Arena on Oct. 27. Lofquist notched eight goals and six assists, totaling 14 points in 47 games last season. Prior to joining the U.S national program, Lofquist had 14 goals and five assists for 19 points in 2005-06 at Shattuck St. Mary’s.

Sacchetti, a 6-0, 186-pound center from Virginia, has played in 12 games with Omaha of the USHL and has three goals and three assists for six points. A second-round pick of the Dallas Stars in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft (50th overall), Sacchetti amassed 41 goals and 53 assists for 94 points in 27 games as a junior at Virginia High School last season.

Schroeder, a 5-8, 165-pound center from Prior Lake, is the leading scorer on the U.S. under-18-team with six goals and eight assists for 14 points in 18 games. He notched a hat trick with two assists, including the game-winning goal in a 6-5 overtime win over Finland at the Four Nations Cup on Nov. 10. Schroeder finished with 12 goals and 11 assists for 23 points in 31 games with the under-17 national team last season. He played the 2005-06 season at St. Thomas Academy and totaled 27 goals and 35 assists for 62 points in 31 games.

Scott, a 6-3, 205-pound defenseman/wing from Sewickley, Pa., is in his second season with the U.S. development team and has played in 10 games with a team-high 52 penalty minutes. He totaled three goals and two assists for five points in 39 games last season. Scott played at Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh during the 2005-06 season and becomes the first player from any eastern U.S. state to join the Gophers.

Dorr, a 5-10, 180-pound wing from Roseville, was a finalist for Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey Award and the 2007 Metro Player of the Year after totaling 38 goals and 33 assists for 71 points in 27 games last season at Roseville High School. He also played with Des Moines of the USHL, compiling seven goals and nine assists for 16 points in 26 games. Dorr is on Des Moines’ injured reserve list for the 2007-08 season, but will return to the active roster in December.

Matson, a 6-0, 185-pound center from Orono, has three goals and three assists for six points in 13 games with Des Moines of the USHL this season. A sixth-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft (176th overall), Matson finished with 17 goals and 19 assists for 36 points last season at Academy of Holy Angels. He also played in 10 games with Des Moines.

Martell, a 6-2, 195-pound defenseman from Elk River, had 11 goals and 22 assists for 33 points in 22 games last season at Elk River High School. He is playing this season with Tri-City of the USHL and is on the team’s injured reserve list, but will return to the lineup in December. Martell had 13 goals and 23 assists for 36 points in 30 games at Elk River in 2005-06.

Miller has spent the past season playing for Sioux City of the USHL and had 23 goals part of 49 points this year.

Ness, who was recently named Minnesota’s state high school player of the year, has signed a National Letter of Intent to play hockey at the University of Minnesota.

Ness, a 5-10, 170-pound defenseman who attended Roseau High School, totaled 28 goals and 44 assists for 72 points in 31 games this past season. During his three-year career, he compiled 44 goals and 100 assists for 144 career points in 92 games played. Ness’ teams were a combined 82-10 over the past three years and made three state tournament appearances, including a state championship in 2007.

Lucia is looking for two goaltenders for next season - one to fill Jeff Frazee's scholarship spot after he signed a pro contract with New Jersey two weeks ago. The other is a walk-on position that Brent Solei has occupied for the past four years.

The other news to come out of Gopher land is the resignation of assistant coach Mike Guentzel, who spent the past 14 years as assistant coach of the University of Minnesota men’s hockey program, will pursue other coaching opportunities.

“I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to play here four years and coach here for 14 years,” Guentzel said. “The Gopher program has been and always will be number one in my heart. I’ve had wonderful hard-working guys to work with and made a lot of friends here. That’s just something you can’t replace.”

Bob Motzko took over at St. Cloud State two seasons ago, now Guentzel. Personally, I think Guentzel might be a little jealous that John Hill might be Lucia's right hand man.

So, who will be his replacement? My guess is former Gopher Scott Bell, who has turned around the Hamline hockey program (small D3 school in St. Paul - my alma mater). He has expressed his interest in coaching at his alma mater, and said he would leave Piperland if given the chance. Bell is a great recruiter and that's what Guentzel was.

PS I'll be at the Spring Football Game Friday and I will give my report next weekend. So far, Coach Tim Brewster likes what he's seen from his defense and from quarterback Adam Weber. Biggest question mark - running back with Jay Thomas hurt.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Tubby Ball Year In Review Part 3

PJS Note: This is the third installment in an ongoing series looking at the season that was for Minnesota's men's basketball team. Previously we've discussed the three departing seniors and the impact Tubby Smith had on player progression.

Part 3: Defense

In the final year of the Dan Monson/Jim Molinari era, the Golden Gophers allowed on average 66 points per game. In Tubby Smith's first season, the Gophers allowed on average 63 points per game.

Not a huge difference, right? Maybe, but the change in defensive philosophy can be more easily seen in other areas. In 2006-07, Gophers opponents turned the ball over 390 times. In that year, the Gophers themselves turned the ball over 456 times. In Tubby's first season, those numbers changed dramatically. Minnesota caused or was the beneficiary of 560 turnovers made by opponents. Playing a more up-tempo game, the Gophers' turnover numbers rose as well (482 turnovers), but more times than not the Gophers were winning the turnover battle. The number of steals also rose dramatically, from 150 under Monson/Molinari to 298 under Tubby Smith.

Why the improvement in these categories? It wasn't for an influx of talent. But instead it came from a change in philosophy. After the first couple games of the season, returning players from Monson/Molinari's teams were quoted as saying Tubby Smith was orchestrating a 180 as far as their defensive thinking went. Instead of playing back, giving defenders a step or two because of a concern that opponents were more athletic than Minnesota, Tubby Smith instead decided to set the tempo himself.

The Gophers would apply full-court pressure against inferior, equal and superior opponents. Against lowly teams nicknamed such atrocious things as the Jackrabbits, this strategy allowed the Gophers to run up the score and gain confidence. Most importantly, however, the Gophers were playing aggressive basketball instead of playing basketball on their heels. One game specifically stands out.

In the second Big Ten game of the season, the Gophers travelled to Happy Valley to take on the Nittany Lions. This was Geary Claxton's last full game for Penn State and he led his team to a seemingly insurmountable double-digit second-half lead. Last year's Gophers wouldn't have had a shot. They would have sat back, playing not to lose, instead of increasing pressure. Tubby Smith decided with about 15 minutes left in that game to ramp up the full-court pressure. This did two things: caused turnovers and lengthened the game allowing Minnesota a chance to come back. Come back they did and an Al Nolen steal sealed the improbable comeback.

Aside from the full-court pressure, which admittedly did lessen as the Gophers played top-notch Big Ten foes, the Gophers executed Tubby Smith's ball-line defense fairly well. This meant Gophers defenders who were one pass away from the ball tried to deny passing lanes. Defenders two passes away would sag to help out. This leaves teams susceptible to the skip pass, but it also resulted in numerous deflections, steals and fast-break points, something the offensively challenged Gophers desperately needed.

Finally, a couple players deserve some plaudits for helping the Gophers improve defensively. Damian Johnson led the team in blocks (46) and was second in steals (59) and most likely led the team in deflections. Al Nolen led the team with 64 steals. Just how good was Nolen in this department? Let's look at Ken Pomeroy's tempo-free stats. Nolen ranked 9th nationally in Steal Percentage, which is, according to Pomeroy's site "the percentage of possessions that a player records a steal while he is on the court. It is computed by Steals/(%Min * Team Possessions). Anything greater than 5% is very good."

Nolen's steal percentage was 5.2 percent, which was the highest for any BCS conference player. For comparison, Kansas' Mario Chalmers, who demonstrated his defensive aptitude during the Final Four, was #17 by those rankings and finished with a Steal Percentage of 4.75. The Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year, Purdue's Chris Kramer, finished right behind Chalmers.

Damian Johnson wasn't far behind, ending the season ranked 21st in Steal Percentage.

These numbers might not say everything--considering former Gopher Rico Tucker finished right ahead of Chalmers for his work out west for Pepperdine--but they do indicate how proficient Nolen was at pick-pocketing opponents.

Conclusion: Tubby Smith came in and completely changed the way returning Gophers thought on the defensive end. Playing not to lose wasn't the plan any more. The aggressiveness certainly cost the Gophers on possessions here or there, but overall the increased intensity and focus on creating turnovers helped the Gophers win games. A big reason why the Gophers won 11 more games in Tubby Smith's first year than they did in the last year of Molinari/Monson was the new defensive mindset. The offense is a different story. And that will be the next installment.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Tubby Ball Year In Review Part 2

PJS Note: This is the second installment in a series looking back at the first season of Tubby ball. The first installment was a post looking at the contributions of Minnesota's three seniors.

Player Development

Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of the Dan Monson era was at least the perception that players didn't progress as their tenures in maroon and gold wound down. Skills didn't develop. Team chemistry didn't improve. And that was perhaps the biggest reason I was excited about the hiring of Tubby Smith.

Smith came to Minnesota with a reputation as a great game-day coach, but a lousy recruiter. He had the reputation of a coach who recruited players who would excel in his defensive oriented system. This would lead to some ugly moments, but as UK bloggers have discussed previously, eventually Tubby's system would click in the minds of young players and they would begin to play like a cohesive bunch.

The question we asked at the beginning of Tubby's first year was whether young players would progress. There are examples that I will cite below that indicate in fact Tubby had a positive impact on player development. There will also be examples I cite that will argue the opposite position.

Damian Johnson: No player took as large a step forward this season than the soon-to-be junior from Louisiana. This is what I wrote of Johnson before the season began.
Damian Johnson, a sophomore forward, struggled in limited playing time a season ago. He's 6'7 and has that lanky small forward type frame that would seem to be conducive to playing a slasher role. But, and this is in limited viewing of him, I don't see the quickness necessary to pull that off. He should get some minutes, especially with this team's lack of size, but he'll need to show much more consistency on both ends of the floor to be more than a bit player.
In his sophomore campaign, Johnson was much more consistent on both ends of the floor. He caused havoc with his length, causing deflections and blocking shots. I was completely wrong about his quickness. He's never going to be a dominant perimeter oriented offensive player, but his lateral quickness on defense was so apparent to Tubby and everyone else that Johnson was routinely asked to guard the opposition's best offensive player--from Geary Claxton to Raymar Morgan.

Offensively, Johnson improved as the season went on. He showed signs of developing an outside shot. More than any other forward, Johnson developed moves on the block, something Dan Coleman could never accomplish.

Johnson was a Dan Monson recruit who benefited tremendously from Tubby Smith's tutelage and his pressure defense. In the next two years I expect Johnson to take more steps forward.

Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber: Both freshman, Hoffarber and Nolen came into their first year with the Gophers with minimal expectations. There were suggestions that Nolen wasn't capable of being a point guard in the Big Ten. And there was evidence that Hoffarber was nothing more than a spot-shooter.

Nolen's playing time grew as the season progressed, but that had more to do with the team's dire need for someone to play the point than as a byproduct of excellent play. From the beginning of the season, it was clear that Nolen had the wherewithal to be an above average defensive point guard. But Nolen never took a step forward offensively many of us would have liked to see. His outside shot is scary. And he never showed an ability or willingness to penetrate and take the ball to the basket.

Hoffarber was as advertised. He set a Minnesota record for three pointers as a freshman. But like Nolen, Hoffarber was unable to add other elements to his game. His hustle on defense was always present and he seemed to grow some defensively as the season progressed, but he remained a liability against more athletic guards.

Overall, I'd argue Hoffarber and Nolen lived up to expectations, but did not progress into all-around players as the season wore on. And I'm not sure Hoffarber has the natural talent to be more than a spot-shooter. Nolen, on the other hand, needs to progress if the Gophers are to take another step next season. That means he needs to be more than a ball-hawking guard.

Dan Coleman and Lawrence McKenzie: Probably the two most talented players on the Minnesota roster, Coleman and McKenzie, seniors both, were asked to alter their games during Tubby Smith's first season. McKenzie was asked to play some point guard, a different marching order than he was given under Dan Monson, who wanted McKenzie to score, score, score. Coleman was asked to diversify his game offensively. That meant Tubby Smith didn't want Coleman to settle for outside jumpers. Tubby wanted Coleman to develop an inside game, moves in the post and play with a certain tenacity.

Neither McKenzie nor Coleman were able to make the transition Tubby asked of them. McKenzie was at his best this season when he reverted to the 2-guard role and when he was on the floor at the same time as Nolen, a true point guard. Meanwhile, Coleman found himself in Tubby's doghouse (replete with a considerable number of patented Tubby stares) early on in the season. Coleman either refused, or was incapable of, taking Tubby's orders to diversify his offense. And because of Coleman's focus on trying to do what he was asked, his outside game went by the wayside much of the season. Coleman's inability to progress as a player was most evident in the Big Ten Tournament in the waning minutes against Indiana. While we all will remember the Hoffarber Heave, what was overshadowed was Coleman reverting to his soft offensive ways in a key moment.

After a scrambled offensive set in the final minute, where the Gophers nearly turned the ball over, Nolen recovered by the mid court line. The shot clock was dwindling and Nolen pushed past two defenders and had what amounted to a 2-on-1. Coleman was on Nolen's right. DJ White was ready to make one last stand. Nolen made a jump stop about the free throw line, drew White out a little and snapped a pass to Coleman. The senior had an opportunity to end the game with authority, dunking on White who was out of position. Instead, Coleman jumped, tried to duck under White and put in an off balance lay-up. Result: White rejected Coleman and the Hoosiers went on to blow a chance to win the game at the free throw line.

Both Coleman and McKenzie were put in a tough position to change their games in their senior season. Tubby had no choice but to tap McKenzie to play some point guard. That failed. Tubby was also correct in trying to get Coleman to be more aggressive. Tubby made two good judgments here, but neither Coleman or McKenzie were able to take the steps Tubby knew needed to be made to progress.

Travis Busch: Make no mistake, Busch has no business being on a Big Ten roster. But the minutes that Tubby coaxed out of Busch--I'll never forget his defense on a 300 pound big man in the Big Ten Tournament--was remarkable.

Did Busch progress? I'm not sure the talent was there to turn Busch into a regular contributor, but for Tubby to tap what Busch was able to do speaks highly of Tubby's ability to get the most out of his players.

Conclusion: Tubby Smith made the right decisions in trying to get his two talented seniors to take steps forward. I'm loathe to blame Tubby for their failures to take another step forward. I'm also hesitant to suggest Johnson would have taken such obvious leaps in performance under the previous regime. Overall, I think Tubby put his players in the best positions to succeed. In some cases it didn't work. But I think we should look at what McKenzie and Coleman had learned to do in previous years as a reason why their growth was stunted in 2007-08.

We'll know more about Tubby's impact in years to come, as we will hopefully watch Ralph Sampson III, Devoe Joseph and others have the benefit of four years of Tubby's tutelage. It will also be telling to see how or if Nolen has progressed come next season.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Tubby Ball Year In Review Part 1

PJS Note: This is the first installment in a series looking back at the first season of Tubby ball.

The Departed Seniors

As we began the season, optimistic Minnesota fans looked to three seniors--Spencer Tollackson, Dan Coleman and Lawrence McKenzie--as cause to justify arguing the Gophers could vastly improve on their 9-22 record from one season ago.

Winning 11 more games should be considered a vast improvement, but it's this scribe's belief that the departing seniors didn't have as much to do with the turnaround as we would have hoped. Sure, McKenzie, Coleman and Tollackson produced the lion share of Minnesota's offensive output on most nights. And there were stretches when McKenzie took over games. But, it is my belief that the turnaround had more to do with Tubby Smith's brand of defense then it did with this trio of seniors.

Here's a look at each of our dearly departed seniors.

Spencer Tollackson: Every one's favorite theater major did what he could. When on the court, he busted his ass, but his athletic limitations rendered him obsolete against most big men from decent teams. Tollackson finished the season averaging about 9 points and 3 rebounds per contest, as his numbers dwindled down the stretch with the Gophers playing mediocre to good Big Ten teams.

Expecting more from Tollackson was perhaps unfair. A 3-star recruit out of Chaska, Minn., Tollackson's athletic limitations never allowed him to be anything other than a decent Big Ten center. He wasn't athletic enough to be a force on the glass, and he perhaps wasn't willing to be physical enough to wear down slimmer, quicker big men. And finally, he wasn't deft enough around the basket--Jeff Hagen style--to be anything but an average big man in a BCS conference.

I'm not trying to knock Spencer, but instead look at him the way he should be seen: As a big man with a load of heart who perhaps exceeded his talent level by playing significant minutes for a Big Ten team.

Dan Coleman: No player infuriated Minnesota fans more this season than senior Dan Coleman. Blessed with a solid outside shot for a big man, a quick first step and the length scouts love, Coleman was unable to take the leadership role many Minnesota fans wanted. He would disappear for long stretches against top notch opponents. He would make freshman like mistakes--even as late as the conference tournament.

Maybe it was because Coleman had already graduated or the fact that he had a little guy to take care of. Part of it could also be our perception. While Tollackson wears his emotions on his face, Coleman appears without emotion.

Whatever the case was, Coleman could never take his game to another level. All season--from Florida State to Indiana and Illinois, when the games were on the line and the Gophers needed something from their most talented big man, more times, than not Coleman was absent. Of all of the three seniors, it's Coleman's final year that is highly disappointing.
Coleman also failed miserably to change his game from being outside-oriented to a more hybrid player. Tubby clearly wanted Coleman to use his quickness to take the ball to the basket and draw contact. Coleman's softness prevented any hope of diversifying his game. And because Coleman was so focused on being an interior player, it wasn't until very late in the year that he started shooting from the outside.

Lawrence McKenzie: I have to admit that I felt pretty bad for McKenzie as he watched his career end in the NIT against the Terps. Beset by an injury, McKenzie went out playing just one minute against the Terps. And I felt bad for McKenzie all season. Here's a guy who went to play for Kelvin Sampson at Oklahoma, decided to transfer back home to play for Dan Monson, then played for Jim Molinari before Tubby Smith finally took over. That's quite the whirlwind college career.

With his offensive talent, it would have been something to see McKenzie play four years under someone like Smith, where he could get comfortable in an offense and know what is expected of him.

But thanks to circumstances beyond his control, McKenzie's role shifted often as a Gopher. Under Monson, McKenzie was asked to score. And score he did. To begin the 2007-08 season, McKenzie was asked to take on a different role. McKenzie was asked to play some point guard and distribute the ball. The strategy was clear early this season: Get the ball inside to Coleman and Tollackson. Once Tubby Smith learned he didn't have big men who could be difference makers on the interior, McKenzie was freed up to look for his shot more often.

The decision to play McKenzie at the point might not have been Tubby's first choice. But there weren't really any other options. Al Nolen wasn't ready to play point guard to start the season, and I'd suggest he's not ready to start at the point now. So, McKenzie, ever the soldier, accepted Tubby's orders. He didn't complain. He went on the court and played the role expected of him.

As the season progressed we saw the outbursts from McKenzie we expected every evening. He's probably not well suited to either playing point guard or being the number one perimeter option on a team. If McKenzie were surrounded by a play-making point guard, I'd expect his numbers to soar. Unfortunately McKenzie never had any back court help at Minnesota.

Conclusion: Overall, Minnesota's three seniors provided a scoring lift and some stability from last season. McKenzie and Tollackson played with a certain passion that surely rubbed off on players like Damian Johnson. But neither Coleman, Tollackson or McKenzie could put together consistently excellent play, or take their games to another level. And that's what was needed for the departing seniors to have led this team to an NCAA Tournament run.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Hey, At Least We're Not IU Fans

Being a University of Minnesota men's basketball fan has been a trying experience over the past decade. Scandals. Sanctions. Overwhelmed coach. Thankfully, Tubby Smith has brought some calm back to the Land O' 10k Lakes.

Times are slightly more turbulent in Bloomington, Indiana. After Kelvin Sampson was dispatched, the Hoosiers all but quit on Dan Dakich. The Blake Hoffarber Miracle was demoralizing. Sanctions could be coming. DJ White's eligibility has expired. Eric Gordon is expected to be a one-and-done type. Then, yesterday, Dakich dismissed Armon Bassett and Jamarcus Ellis. Other than the Oliver Miller look-a-like, I'm not sure who that leaves on IU's roster.

Coming out of all of that turmoil is reporting from ESPN today that Marquette's Tom Crean will be announced soon as the next Hoosiers coach. My question is this: What in God's name is Tom Crean thinking? Crean has rebuilt Marquette into a regional power of sorts. He's taken the Golden Eagles to the new heights thanks to Dwayne Wade. In doing this, Crean has built a reputation as an excellent coach, a solid recruiter, and an all around decent guy.

Crean has Big Ten ties, having worked under Tom Izzo's thumb at Michigan State. Under normal circumstances, the move to IU would be an easy one. But why would Crean leave arguably college basketball's best conference, leave a clean program for a storied program that is peering around the corner at NCAA sanctions? And IU's current roster--assuming Gordon leaves and Bassett and Ellis are in fact gone--leaves much to be desired. And that's being nice about it. To me, this is akin to Tubby Smith--and many others--leaving great gigs for some mythical historical significance. At IU, Crean will face unrealistic expectations even as he rebuilds from Kelvin Sampson's disaster.

If you were Crean, would you leave?

UPDATE: The 4-letter is now reporting that Crean has signed a letter of intent. I trust the 4-letter as much as I trust Shooter Walters, but it at least looks like this is a done deal. It will be itnerseting to see how long the contract is for. Is it a long deal--like 8 years? If so, Crean is smart. If it's a 4ish year deal, Crean made a big mistake. It'll take him that long to get out from under the sanctions.