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 fired men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith Monday. Smith was 124-81 during his six seasons at Minnesota. He took the Gophers to three NCAA tournaments, including this past season when Minnesota topped UCLA 83-63 before losing to Florida 78-64 last week. The move will cost the University an estimated $6 million, which includes a $2.5 million buyout of Smith’s contract, the firing and payoff of assistant coaches and the hiring of a new coach. What do you think of the decision to fire Smith?
-Dorr: Haven’t been in Minnesota for awhile and don’t know as much about the situation as I might otherwise, but I am surprised. I thought they wouldn’t spend the money for the buyout. I don’t have the figures in front of me but his November and December record at Minnesota is great, while the Big Ten record isn’t very good. If Minnesota had beaten Florida, would they have fired him? When Minnesota got off to a good start against Florida, Smith did something he’s often done that I’ve never understood – he put substitutes in the game early and Florida went on a dominant run. You can get by with that against average teams but it’s hard to make it work against a good team. I’ve never agreed with his practice of doubling on post players, thus leaving three-point shooters open. But he was the coach and I wasn’t. I’ve never been much of a Tubby Smith fan but I’m surprised at the firing.
Marxhausen: The Gophers’ organization was looking to turn the basketball program around after the academic cheating scandal that hurt the program and its reputation. Smith was 124-81 in his six seasons with the Gophers and won 20 games five of those seasons. The problem that lingered with the program was he finished with a 46-62 record in Big Ten play and never finished higher than sixth in the conference. Gophers made the NCAA three times under Smith and scored their first legitimate win in over 20 years before losing to Florida Sunday. The unpopular record with the Big Ten has forced the hand of the Gopher administration. Athletic Director Norwood Teague is quoted as saying that the basketball program needs a “fresh set of eyes.” The next step in finding a new coach is going to be a long, arduous road, but could some familiar names be willing to take the challenge? There has been talk that Shaka Smart from Virginia Commonwealth (VCU) might team up with his former athletic director (Teague) at Minnesota. The Gophers need a name that will bring a new look and a competitive attitude that a seasoned coach like Smart could bring to the team.
-Larson: I’m not surprised that Smith was fired but I am stunned that it was so soon. We all thought Smith would bring something special to the Gopher program, like he did as coach at Kentucky. The nose dive this year’s team went into at the end of the season sealed Smith’s fate. A victory in the second round of the NCAA tourney could not save him. But, let’s look at the Gopher basketball, and football programs. Maybe, as St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Tom Powers has suggested in recent columns, we shouldn’t expect Minnesota to consistently, if ever, bid for Big Ten and national titles. “There is no next level at Minnesota,” wrote Powers. “This (20 victories and a NCAA bid) is the last level.”
Powers is probably right. Without big name coaches Minnesota can’t compete for the top high school recruits. And, those top recruits make all the difference. As legendary Ohio State Football Coach Woody Hayes once said, “You win with people.” And, even Smith, a big name coach, couldn’t do that. If you were a high school player and made a recruiting trip to Minnesota in the last four months, would you come here? If you were an outstanding high school player and you were being recruited by the likes of Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State, Kansas and other top programs, would you come to Minnesota? Heck, even the top prep players in Minnesota are heading elsewhere. Athletic Director Teague will likely hire a young, energetic coach who has had some success. And, who will have to compete for recruits and victories with the coaches at Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. Good luck with that.
•Question: The NCAA meet is down to 16 teams. 1. What are your thoughts on the tournament so far? 2. What team has impressed you the most?
-Dorr: It’s been as unpredictable as I thought this one would be. I was hoping at least four Big Ten teams would make the Sweet 16, maybe five. I was surprised that Wisconsin lost in the first round and I imagine the Badgers were also. It was good to see some of the highly-seeded teams go down early, and to see UCLA, which was seeded too high, go down to Minnesota. Florida Gulf Coast is now the darling of the tournament and it would be nice to see the Eagles knock off the Florida Gators Friday night at the football stadium in Arlington, Texas. The whole state of Florida will be tuned in, or be there in person, as a team with tradition meets a team that is only in its second year of Division I play. Kansas was impressive Sunday but FGCU, as the school is known in Florida, has been the most impressive. The Eagles played with a passion that I wish some Minnesota teams would have. Now, if we can just get Kansas, Duke and Miami to lose this week …
-Marxhausen: The tournament has been a crazy road with twists and turns that has left the viewers shaking their heads when looking at the brackets. The Midwest Region has experienced some upsets, but looks to be the closest thing to a proper section. Louisville, Michigan State and Duke made the Sweet 16, but Oregon has put up a courageous fight against Oklahoma State and St. Louis, winning by 13 and 17 respectively. The West Region has been quite blown out of proportion, with Gonzaga losing to Wichita State in the second round. Also La Salle against Ole Miss was not to be expected, but La Salle has put together two, two-point victories against Kansas State and Ole Miss. Arizona and Ohio State have had a strong start that has brought the clutch ability out of both teams to finish their games strong. The South Region was also like the Midwest, with Kansas, Michigan and Florida making the Sweet 16, but Florida Gulf Coast has made waves as a 15 seed, topping Georgetown and San Diego State to push forward. The East is the only region that hasn’t experienced tremendous upsets, with Indiana, Syracuse, Marquette and Miami (Fla.) making the Sweet 16. Florida Gulf Coast has been the most impressive as a 15 seed, topping No. 2 Georgetown and San Diego State by 10 points each.
-Larson: I’m pretty sure that a lot of bracket sheets, including mine, were burned by the end of the second round. Do you fill out one bracket sheet, or do you “buy in” to several sheets. I know one fellow that has eight sheets and I’m pretty sure there are some people who have more than that. What’s the point? Do you feel like an expert when one of four, six or eight sheets turns out to be pretty accurate? Can you really say that you picked the winners? That’s like having five or six picks to win the Kentucky Derby.
I missed out on Georgetown but three of my Final Four picks (Michigan State, Ohio State and Indiana) are still alive. And, I filled out just one sheet. Florida Gulf Coast is a great story but you have to wonder how it brought in so many good players in just two years. Its season will end vs. Florida. I’m thinking Luther will be in some really loud Florida sports bar and restaurant watching that one. With the NCAA tourney and the high school meet going on last week, it was a great time to watch basketball on TV.
•Question: The University of Minnesota women’s hockey team won the national title Sunday, topping Boston University 6-3 in the finals of the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers were 41-0 and notched their second national crown in a row. Have you followed the team much this season?
-Dorr: Followed the team all season, even more as the streak continued. You may not follow hockey, or like it, but a winning streak of 49 (going back to last season) is impressive. And an undefeated 41-0 season is off the charts, especially when you have to play a good team six times as the Gophers did North Dakota, barely winning the last one in overtime. The skill level in that sport, both in high school and college, has improved dramatically. The pressure that team dealt with the last couple weeks is another story. There was the streak that was on the line, as well as the quest for another NCAA title. Not many teams in any sport, at any level, have had to deal with pressure like that. Can you imagine the pressure next year for the players that return? The coach and players deserve all the accolades they’ve gotten.
-Marxhausen: The Gopher women’s hockey team has not had the respect nor the media attention it deserves for what is has accomplished the past two seasons. I personally have only followed this feat through word of mouth and by looking up the progress online. News about the Pittsburgh Penguins winning 12 games in a row, or the Miami Heat winning 26 in a row, or the Baylor women’s basketball team winning 31 in a row is readily available. The Gophers completed this season 41-0, ushering in the first undefeated college hockey season since 1970. Their last record loss was on Feb. 17, 2012 against North Dakota. The women’s team outscored its opponents 216-36 this season, with senior goaltender Noora Raty finishing with 17 shutouts, a 0.96 goals-against average and a .956 save percentage, best in Division I. It is exciting to see how far the women’s team will extend this tremendous accomplishment next season.
-Larson: When the season started I couldn’t name a single player on the team. Now, I can name four or five. And, when next season opens I’ll increase that number by quite a bit. Girls prep hockey in Minnesota has steadily improved. The Gopher roster included 13 players from state high schools. And, it didn’t hurt to have a couple players off the Finnish National team, one being goalie Noora Raty.
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