After back-to-back losses, head coach Tubby Smith’s name is back in the fire of coaches on the hot seat.
With narrow defeats against Illinois, Wisconsin, and Northwestern, the morale for the current squad has diminished, and the overall confidence level is at an all-time low this season.
Even worse, Minnesota fell out of the top-25 for the first time since mid-November. The blame has to be put on someone, and it starts with the coaching staff.
Perhaps it is time for Norwood Teague and the athletic department to make a change to go down a different route. It would be a surprise after Smith saw a contract bump in July. His contract does not expire until after the 2017 season.
The Gophers stand at 5-6 in Big Ten conference play. The dismal record comes after starting the season 15-1 overall with victories over three ranked opponents, including a statement game by Andre Hollins in the Bahamas in which he scored 41 points against Memphis.
Hollins’ prime-time performance against the Memphis Tigers put Minnesota on the map. Yet, inconsistent scoring, poor starts, and the carelessness in relinquishing turnovers have put the Gophers back into the dreaded middle-tier of the Big Ten.
The pressure is building on the coaching staff to finish above .500 in conference play but Smith has yet to do so in his first five seasons and seemed primed to leap over that hurdle after a quick 3-0 start in the Big Ten.
Currently, the Gopher’ only win against a currently ranked top-25 opponent was at home against Michigan State.
Now in his sixth season at the helm for Minnesota, the 61-year-old Smith is 120-75 as head coach, including 43-58 in the conference.
In his first five seasons, the Gophers made the NCAA tournament only twice, resulting in first-round defeats on both occasions.
After a deep run in the NIT at the end of last season, the general public began to change its thinking on the current coaching staff. With the majority of talent returning, Minnesota was keen on making a big run in 2013.
The talent is headlined by a solid starting lineup: Andre Hollins, Joe Coleman, Austin Hollins, Rodney Williams, and Trevor Mbakwe.
But the seniors, Williams and Mbakwe, have been inconsistent this season. Whether it is poor play or bad coaching decisions, the duo have not performed to expectations. The surprise has been Austin Hollins. The junior has taken his game to the next level and has been vital on both ends of the court for the Gophers.
The future is the sophomores, Coleman and Hollins. Both have been crucial in Smith’s goal to become a part of the upper-echelon of the Big Ten. Yet, they are similar players at the guard position.
Beyond the starting five, Smith has not been able to get any production. Senior Julian Welch is shooting at under 30 percent while the frontcourt bench is afraid to attempt a shot.
The lack of a bench unit is the fault of failed recruiting. Smith has not been able to recruit at a top prep player during his six seasons while some players, including Ralph Sampson IIII and Williams, did not develop under the tutelage of the coaching staff.
The coaching staff have wasted scholarships on a few players in order to fill out a roster. For example, Oto Osenieks had no other major offers before Smith lent a scholarship to the Latvian. Even though Minnesota does not have a lot of talent beyond the starting lineup, Smith still coaches like he does.
It has become a major flaw within his coaching philosophy.
For much of the season, Smith has used mass substitutions. The idea has hindered the flow between lineups and kills any momentum that Minnesota was gaining before the substitutions.
The strength of schedule is the lone reason why some may not call for Smith’s head as the team currently ranks third in the nation.
What used to be a lock, the Gophers now must prove in the final seven conference games that they belong in the NCAA tournament. A victory over the Wisconsin Badgers on Valentine’s Day would be a good start.