By DAVE CAMPBELL AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS - Tubby Smith's fourth year at Minnesota was his most disappointing, stopping his streak of 17 straight 20-win seasons and leaving the stunned and depleted Gophers out of not only the NCAA tournament but the NIT.
The streak was the longest active run among major college coaches. This was also the first time Smith missed the postseason since 1993.
"We were 16-4, so I've got to look at it and say, 'OK, what changed? What needs to be changed?"' Smith said. "Every time I come back to it, I go, 'Well, we really didn't have the two best players on our team."'
Al Nolen and Devoe Joseph were feisty, confident guards who struggled at times but showed an ability to drive to the basket and defend the perimeter. When Joseph left the program in a clash with Smith over attitude and academics and Nolen went down with a broken foot, the Gophers were suddenly missing critical attributes they weren't able to replace.
They lost 10 of their last 11 games and much of their confidence along with it. Smith was critical of the performance of several players down the stretch and, in an interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday, was steadfast in his belief that a change in style is unnecessary.
His assessment: Some of his players didn't train well enough the previous summer, and the entire team was a victim of the unlucky breaks of season-ending injuries to Nolen and freshman center Maurice Walker. Not only did their absences prove costly, but other players the Gophers redshirted because they appeared to have depth at every position were unable to help.
"We'd have been playing for a Big Ten championship if Al Nolen and Maurice Walker were healthy. It's as simple as that," Smith said. "The best-laid plans."
As he peered through a window at his returning players running up and down the court at Williams Arena, Smith expressed optimism about the addition of recruits Julian Welch, Andre Ingram, Joe Coleman and Andre Hollins plus Elliott Eliason, Oto Osenieks and Chris Halvorsen, redshirts last season.
Throw in Walker, and there ought to be plenty of competition at every position.
Smith's reflection on the rough year included an acknowledgment he mismanaged the lineup when Nolen got hurt. He said it was difficult for players to adjust to playing a zone defense forced by the absences when they were taught a certain way all along.
Blake Hoffarber, the only other senior on the team, moved out of his natural shooting guard position. Rodney Williams was out of his element in Hoffarber's spot, and with 6-foot-11 junior Ralph Sampson shoehorned in at small forward, the Gophers had plenty of size but not nearly enough speed. Smith said he should've kept Hoffarber where he was and given one of the freshmen, likely Maverick Ahanmisi, a chance.
Without Nolen and Joseph, they didn't generate enough fast breaks from backcourt steals, and they were vulnerable against strong 3-point shooting teams. Junior Colton Iverson didn't provide enough scoring in the paint, and without an identity or a rhythm in the half-court set the Gophers played offense like they didn't have much of a plan. Shooting percentages sagged, and the losses climbed.
"What's different about Tubby Smith this year? I don't know. I didn't get any dumber," Smith said. "I think our kids worked just as hard in practice and our staff worked just as hard, probably harder than we've ever worked to be honest with you."
Smith denied any rift between the players and coaches or a lack of respect or trust from the team when the struggles started.
"Guys, they're human beings. They're going to have feelings of neglect, feelings of insecurity," Smith said. "I didn't like my mom and dad when they disciplined me."
Iverson recently joined Joseph as the latest player to transfer since Smith arrived. The coach lamented the increase in departures.
"I think it's a learned habit, because even now you've got kids switching schools in high school, you've got them switching AAU teams. I think it becomes easy for guys to just throw up their hands and say, 'Well, you know?"' Smith said. "I don't know it's quitting. It's just that there are more opportunities for them."
Smith, who turns 60 in June, said he hopes this is his last head coaching job. Though his name has surfaced in connection with openings at other schools over the last few years, Smith said he's not looking around. With three seasons left on the seven-year contract that pays him $1.75 million guaranteed annually, Smith said there's no rush to sign the extension that's been pending for months.
"It's still out there. It's still on somebody's desk. It's not on my desk," Smith said, alluding to a reason for the delay the change at the top this summer when Eric Kaler replaces Robert Bruininks as school president. "I want to be fair, and they want to be fair. It's not about money."
On other subjects:
- Smith said he expects star forward Trevor Mbakwe to return for his senior year, rather than declare for the NBA draft, as well as Sampson. Smith said he didn't feel Sampson worked hard enough before last season. "I didn't think he had a very good year," the coach said.
- He said Williams was distracted by becoming a father last year. "He never really played to his potential. I tell them: It's in the offseason when you get better," Smith said.
- Smith said he's been doing more work with the school's development office on donor solicitation for a new practice facility, which he has been pitching as an important piece in the program's future success: "It's needed. It's not for Coach Smith. It's for Gopher basketball," he said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)