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.


alex said...

Good writeup, but it just makes more disappointed in the performance of Dan Coleman this year. It also makes me wish we had a true point guard for the entirety of this year, so we could have seen Lawrence McKenzie actually play his true position.

Anonymous said...

Tubby did it this year with smoke and mirrors. Gosh, what a bunch of stiffs on this team.

Tollakson had NO heart. Tubby had to bail him out of a Senior year academic suspension since T'Dog couldn't wake up for his "Costume" class. Dog's "sprained ankle" in the Big 10 T'ment had no swelling and the Doc told Tubby there was no reason Dog couldn't play. Exhibit A, Dog's miraculous recovery between Indiana and Illinois.

McKenzie did complain/whine albeit not in public. He was constantly crying Tubby "took my pro game away". Geez, what fantasies.

Coleman was the enigma. Some signs of talent but he just never got it.

Anonymous said...

It was a nice achievement to get 20 W from this Gopher roster. Only 11 players.

PJS said...

Anon (the first one)... you sound like an insider. Perhaps we should converse via email? Hit me up at

tubtastic said...

Great post. The seniors did just enough to help Tubby transform this team but not enough to take the team to the next level. Very frustrating. The team lacked talent and a big time playmaker. I look forwar to your look to the future. The team will be much better next year when the talent level improves to a level Gopher fan haven't seen in years (if not ever).

Friend Of Tubby said...

PJS, I clicked the wrong button. I'm the second Anon but not the first.

PJS said...

I figured as much FOT. You use more facts and numbers than any other commenter!

Thanks Tubtastic. I'm working on part two which will look at player development. Might be out later today or tomorrow. I'm trying to stretch this out, as I'm not ready for six or so months of Brewster ball coverage.

m valdemar said...

it's pretty much comic relief. for the next several years, the main function of the u of m basketball writers will be to patch and reinflate tubby smith. tubby understands that a big kid from chaska or somewhere dropping the ball over the rim does not constitute basketball anywhere but minnesota. but the money's good and the fans will tolerate literally anything.

m valdemar said...

it's pretty much comic relief. for the next several years, the main function of the u of m basketball writers will be to patch and reinflate tubby smith. tubby understands that a big kid from chaska or somewhere dropping the ball over the rim does not constitute basketball anywhere but minnesota. but the money's good and the fans will tolerate literally anything.

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