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.
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.
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.