October 14, 2007

Smith's track record has Gophers excited

Rivals.com has selected the top 25 storylines for the 2007-08 college basketball season and will be releasing articles daily, counting down from No. 25 to No. 1. The No. 23 storyline centers around Tubby Smith's surprising coaching switch.

Tubby Smith has won 20 or more games in each of the last 14 seasons. If that streak stretches to 15 this season, he will be a strong candidate for National Coach of the Year.

With pressure mounting at Kentucky and Smith probably facing a season where his job would have been on the line, he chose to leave college basketball's winningest program for one of the worst programs in any BCS conference. Just four days after the Wildcats lost to Kansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Smith shocked many by bolting for the opening at the University of Minnesota.

"It hasn't really hit me yet," said senior center Spencer Tollackson, the day Smith was announced as his new head coach. "I'm not sure it will for a while. Just seeing him here, the presence he has and the type of person he is. It's incredible and we're all ecstatic right now."

Tollackson and the downtrodden Gophers are coming off a season where they lost a school-record 22 games. Dan Monson (now at Long Beach State) was fired just seven games in. The Gophers finished the year on a nine-game losing streak and only two of those games were decided by single digits.

In the previous season, Minnesota started out 0-6 in Big Ten play. The Gophers have lost six of their last seven matchups with lowly Big Ten rival Northwestern.

It's those numbers that make the move appear so baffling. Smith, 56, certainly could have held out for a better job. He has one of the best coaching resumes in the nation.

Smith won an average of 26 games a season while at Kentucky, racking up a 263-83 record (.760 winning percentage) at the tradition-rich power. Smith became the first first-year coach to lead his team to a national title since 1961 when he took the Wildcats all the way in 1998. He was named National Coach of the Year that season.

Smith has been to 14 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, including 10 with Kentucky, two with Georgia and two with Tulsa. He has a 29-13 (.690) record in NCAA Tournament play.

"This is a once-and-a-lifetime opportunity for a lot of guys," junior forward Jonathan Williams said. "Not everybody gets to play for a big-time coach like Tubby Smith, especially considering the situation. You have to handle every situation by making the most of the opportunities in front of you, and this will definitely be a great opportunity to listen and learn every day."

It's how Smith handled the situations at Georgia and Tulsa that has led to particular optimism in Gopher country. Both under-the-radar schools like Minnesota, Smith excelled at each. Smith led Tulsa to back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances. In his first year at Georgia, Smith took the Bulldogs to the Sweet 16, the furthest the program had been in 13 years. Even after losing every starter, the Bulldogs went 24-9 the following season.

Smith was criticized heavily for an inability to land elite prospects during his last two seasons at Kentucky. But at Minnesota he won't be under any pressure to reel in McDonald's All-Americans. Smith will be out of the spotlight and not under much pressure. He'll also have far less talent. But, that's exactly the situation in which he tends to thrive.

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.


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