Heading into last Thursdays big game with a typically tough Illinois team, Tubby Smith’s Gophers carried a record of 17-3, and were ranked 24th in the country. The Illinois game is pivotal to balancing out a declining Big Ten Conference season for the Gophers. It is really already coming to the point where the real decisions are being made as to whether the Gophers will get invited to The Big Dance (NCAA Basketball Tournament aka March Madness), or end up as one of the frustrated, but good, teams that wind up in the conciliatory National Invitational Tournament (N.I.T.).
As is known to happen in a sports programs’ growth phase, the Gophers suffered a difficult loss after a huge win. Wisconsin was the huge win, and Northwestern was the follow-up loss. The bigger problem was the additional loss to Purdue that came on the heels of the Northwestern loss. The biggest problem is the treacherous Big Ten schedule immediately ahead. Normally there seems to be a few more highs and lows on the conference schedule, but this year presents quite a bit of parody in the Big Ten Conference. Everyone in the conference seems about the same, but the Gophers do manage to skew more towards on of the “promising good” teams versus the “pesky bad” teams. Yet that is a very thin line this year.
The Gopher team performs consistently as a whole, but the nightly source of leadership seems to vary, save a couple of fellas such as Al Nolen, Jr. who consistently leads in some impressive form. This production from all over also seems to be representative of a team with strong growth potential, though Tubby certainly operates a theory of using all of his players. That being said, the young line-up of growing stars needs to take some advice from Sarah Palin and “Ramp it up, and put a little bit more attention in that arena!” The Gophers seem to be a player (or recruiting class) away from rising above the Big Ten conferences’ monochrome offering of men’s basketball teams.
If Tubby can milk the current tender saplings to the max for the next few weeks, his greatness is sealed in my book, because that will take some top-notch coaching. Additionally, if success comes in the next few weeks, the U of M might want to look around for some “Keep-a-Tubby” money. In their attempt to figure out what that amount of money is, the U of M Athletic Department better account for some ruthless Alabama boosters with a crew of folks who live only to eat good, go to church, and root for the University of Alabama..
The U of M will soon have to put Tubby Smith on the pedestal necessary to make a great coach feel greater than the -40 degrees outside of the stadium. Pray for the Spring to come so that Tubby quickly forgets about the -40s like the rest of us. All that being said, Tubby seems like a “loyalty” type of cat…or, Gopher.
Keep an eye on the Gophers during the month of February. Watching their tough series of battles should be the perfect elixir for your Super Bowl hangover.