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.


Anonymous said...

If I were giving each of the core returning players one thing to work on this off-season here's my list:

Damian Johnson: Free throws! He's the #1 returning off. reb., which is why he has shot the most FT of all the returning players.

Lawrence Westbrook: Transition offense. He has the speed and he forces turnovers, so he needs to learn how to run and finish better, as well as how to set up others more efficiently in transition.

Blake Hoffarber: Moving without the ball. He can't create his outside shot, but if he can learn when and how to work off screens and make backdoor cuts he's going to be a consistent 10+ppg. scorer.

Al Nolen: His jump shot is his most obvious flaw. Of this group, Nolen will have the hardest time improving his one skill this offseason.

Jonathon Williams: Two bread and butter low-post moves. Preferably to both sides. I know...dream on.

Friend Of Tubby said...

Good balance of talented newcomers and returning players. I think Gophers can get to 25 W when postseason is done in 2009.

We'll C.

Anonymous said...

I'll agree Travis Busch is a role player but disagree that he doesn't belong in the Big 10. As to the influence of Tubby, all I can say is that Busch has been a hustle-player who's always given his all when going after a loose ball, defending a bigger player, etc. He displayed that when he played H.S. ball and was named Mr Basketball and seems to have maintained that profile in Div. 1 ball.


PJS said...

anon 702: Good observation on Hoffarber needing to learn more about moving without the ball. And I didn't mention Jon WIlliams but I actually thought he did better than Tollackson or Coleman in improving offensively as the season wore on. He wasn't great, but at least he had a go-to move in the post, even if it was mostly ineffective.

MN Snowman: We'll have to agree to disagree on Busch's talent level. And while he might always have had the hustle in him, I'm not sure most coaches would bet on his hustle so much as to have him man up IU's 300 pound Oliver Miller wannabe.

Anonymous said...

Careful with those predictions FOT. God forbid that be taken as the Gospel and then you'll be blamed for it not happening.

Nice job PJS. Looking forward to your next installments.

tubtastic said...

Good post. I'd like to see Williams improve next year but I think he may not have to for this team to succeed. With all the big players coming in to the program Williams might be a starter who plays less then others (RSIII and Iverson and Faber or Trevor). Even so, I think Williams still has an upside that Tollackson lacked.

I still think we need another point guard as Nolen will need help at times, Joseph may or may not be a PG, and Westbrook, while improved, still seems a bit reckless as a PG.

whogoofed said...

An interesting question to put to Tubby is what type of screening(if any) they did for Blake or if the team did a poor job at that. In the games I saw(and I saw only a few) he seemed to moved a lot off the ball. Blake definitely needs more strength and he should also develop a mid range shot(Sam Cassel would be a good model for him, he has the best mid range shot I have seen). You are right with Al, he needs to work on his shot and taking the ball to the basket.

snacks said...

One thing that everyone seems to miss about the Hoffarber play because it is such a mesmerizing play is that it showed another example of how soft and unassertive Coleman is. Watch it again, and you'll see that Coleman is at the back of a pack of guys when the ball is on its way, as everyone else goes aggressively towards it, Coleman shies away from the contact. As the (supposed) senior leader and the best physical talent on the floor (for the Gophers at least) he should have been the one making an aggressive play for the ball and the winning shot. Instead, he was content to shy away from it because he was too soft to assert himself. The play sums his season up pretty well.

PJS said...

Snacks: You are exactly right. The play was designed for Coleman and instaed of going for the ball, he kind of ducked and weaved. Soft. The difference was Hoffarber wanted the ball. I'm not sure Coleman ever really, really wanted it--the ball, the pressure.

Tubtastic: With RSIII, Iverson, Williams and Johnson, I'd love another big man (Faber), but think our most dire need is at point, so I'd like to hope Tubby still has a chance at Verdell Jones. That's assuming Devoe will play the two. If Devoe can play point and Nolen can come off the bench, with LWestbrook and Devron at the 2, then... well, we should take the bets player.

whogoofed: The next installment, probably tomorrow (getting my Twins fix tonight) is going to touch on offensive and defensive schemes, so we'll get into how Hoffarber and others were utilized.

Friend Of Tubby said...

Anon - nowhere in I Think Minny Can Get To 25 W is a prediction.

I don't PREDICT that but it CAN happen.

Simple English. Try reading it.

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