Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times editor-sports editor Gary Larson, reporter Luther Dorr and former Times intern Logan Marxhausen. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.
•Question: The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team lost to Illinois 57-53 Sunday at Williams Arena. The Gophers, who slipped to 5-6 in Big Ten play and 17-7 overall, had earlier defeated Illinois by 17 points at Illinois. Criticism of Gopher coach Tubby Smith by members of the media and fans has heated up over the past few weeks. And, some are saying that if the Gophers don’t win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament, it’s time for the school to swallow the $2.5 million buyout on Smith’s contract and find a new coach. What do you think?
-Dorr: Some people think a game can’t be won or lost on one play. I do and it came at the end of the first half and showed that the basketball IQ of this team isn’t very high, something we’ve known all season. Minnesota had a 30-28 lead, and the ball, with about 40 seconds left in the half. Minnesota took a shot and missed but rebounded the ball, TWICE, and had a chance to end the half with a bigger lead or at least a two-point lead. But two quick ill-advised shots were fired up, Illinois got the ball and hit a three-pointer for the halftime lead. Want more? No field goals for the last 5:25 of the first half and the first 2:15 of the second half. And with a 26-14 lead in the first half and the team in control, Joe Coleman puts up a three (he’s not a three-point guy) and the Gophers kept jamming the ball into Mo Walker like he was the answer. And there went the lead. I wrote back in November that the team can’t defend three-point shooters and Illinois made that clear. NCAA tournament? Will the Gophers get there? I’m tired of games where the team scores in the 40s and 50s.
-Marxhausen: There is a lot of overreaction when it comes to people not seeing what they want. Tubby Smith is a proven genius and mastermind of college hoops and has proved it many times before. Based on the latest bad stretch the Gophers have put up, I would not even consider buying out his contract. Sure they have gone 2-6 in the past eight games, but look at their losses and it is not all that surprising. They lost to Michigan by eight, at Wisconsin by one, at Michigan State by 11 and Illinois by four. Each one of those losses were to a team that will make the NCAA tournament come March. There is a surprising loss in that six and that came at Northwestern. If the Gophers finish the season with no more surprising losses, they should finish around 9-9 in the Big Ten, earning them a decent seed in the conference. Just because Rodney Williams had to sit out against Illinois due to a shoulder injury, which would have made all the difference, we call for the head coach’s job? Not yet.
-Larson: It appears that Smith, and many members of the media, over-sold the Gophers when the season began. The team doesn’t have as much talent as first thought and lacks mental toughness. Is that Smith’s fault? He has to take some of the blame. His Minnesota teams have a history of slumping at this time of the season. He received a big contract when he came to Minnesota and expectations were that Minnesota would be a title contender in the Big Ten and a player on the national scene. That hasn’t happened.
Should Smith be fired if Minnesota’s current slump continues? A $2.5 million buyout shouldn’t be a problem for a school that found $600,000 to pay off North Carolina and get the rugged Tar Heels off the football schedule. Smith hasn’t generated the excitement that many thought he would and it appears much of Minnesota’s fan base has lost confidence with him. A new, younger coach might be able to cure that.
•Question: National signing day for high school football players was Wednesday, Feb. 6. The University of Minnesota signed some impressive-looking recruits but coach Jerry Kill’s effort was ranked dead last in the Big Ten by a major group that analyzes how schools do. And, the Gophers managed to sign just one major player from their home state, with three others signing elsewhere. Do the Gophers need to do better and why can’t they do better on the recruiting front?
-Dorr: I pay little attention to the rankings by the recruiting services and will agree with Sid Hartman on one thing: You won’t know much about this recruiting class until two or three years from now. So I have no idea if they need to do better or not. It’s easy to rank Alabama’s recruiting class as No. 1 - Alabama will likely be at or near the top a few years from now. It’s harder to tell with the Gophers. If only four Minnesota kids signed with Division I teams, I think that shows how hard it is to win with Minnesota kids. I did notice that a St. Michael-Albertville player went to Division I North Dakota State and that a Becker player, Zimmerman player, St. Michael-Albertville player and two Elk River players went to Division II schools.
-Marxhausen: The Gophers didn’t act quickly enough and didn’t make it alluring enough to keep the home-state players in Minnesota. The Gophers need to do better in their home state. Minnesota has a lot of talent in its high school teams and could benefit from reaching out to the locals and bringing in the home-state talent. There is a silver lining in the lowly-ranked recruiting class for the Gophers in running back Berkley Edwards and in stealing junior college linebacker De’Vondre Campbell from Kansas State.
-Larson: I pay a lot of attention to the recruiting services. The best teams get the best players. It’s been that way for many, many years. The Alabamas, the Southern Cals, the Floridas, etc., dominate in recruiting and on the field year in and year out. And, schools like Minnesota are left fighting for the players the big boys either didn’t want, or didn’t have room for. It’s a sad situation for Minnesota. The new TCF Bank Stadium hasn’t been the recruiting tool it was supposed to be. Top recruits are impressed by packed stadiums with 90,000 or more cheering fans, not a two-thirds full TCF Bank Stadium with 30,000 fans sitting on their hands wondering how tough getting home is going to be.
Coach Kill probably did as well as can be expected. The players he signed have impressive stats and backgrounds but the Gophers have to hope these players are even better than that. Don’t you think Minnesota should be able to out-recruit schools like Indiana, Northwestern and Iowa?
You can bet Sid Hartman will keep a close eye on the three talented state players who signed with other schools and point out when any of them doesn’t do well. He’s good at that.
Do you have an opinion on any of this week’s questions? Do you agree or disagree with the sportswriters? Let us know by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or a note to Mille Lacs County Times, 225 S.W. 2nd St. Milaca, MN 56353. Or comment online.