Thursday, February 11, 2010

Winter of Discontent Falls on Coaching

Tuesday, I ranted about how disappointing this winter has been for Gopher sports fans, given the mediocrity of University of Minnesota men's hockey and basketball thus far despite some lofty pre-season expectations. In the past few days, the two coaches of the teams have found themselves in the crosshairs of the public's and the media's discontent over seasons heading in the wrong directions.

Basketball coach Tubby Smith was heavily criticized by StarTribune curmedgeon Patrick Reusse late last week. Reusse cited a lack of progress of some of Smith's recruits, namely Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson. Predictably, Sampson had a huge game for the Gophers in their win over hapless Penn State Saturday, pouring in 13 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, and blocking two Talor Battle shots in the game's final minute. The Reusse article stated that the Gophers are being led this season with a couple of Dan Monson recruits (Damian Johnson and Lawrence Westbrook), and that the heralded Smith recruits are either struggling (Iverson, Sampson, Devron Bostick, Paul Carter), flunked out (Al Nolen, Royce White), or suspended (Trevor Mbakwe). Reusse points out correctly that one member of Smith's first recruiting class, guard Devoe Joseph, is showing signs of promise.

Critics of Tubby point out that recruiting was his downfall at Kentucky, and that what Gopher fans are seeing right now is what frustrated UK for so many years. This is largely hogwash, but I am willing to put some of the recruiting blame on Smith. First of all, Royce White's off-the-court issues were very well documented over the years. White's talent has never been in question, but his commitment and attitude have definitely been questioned. The recruiting of White carried plenty of risk for Smith and his staff. Since White was the state's top recruit after last season, making it necessary for the U to pursue him. Gopher fans have grown tired of the state's top talent leaving for other schools, and Smith was committed to not have that happen with White. Similarly, the Mbakwe situation carried the same amount of risk. He transferred schools in his prep career, left Marquette, and played at a JuCo in Miami last season. Nobody saw the assault charges coming, but Mbakwe was somewhat of a risky recruit as well.

Blaming Smith for the Nolen situation is a bit much, since every program finds itself in an academic situation with its players. Colleges simply cannot graduate 100% of their players. To think this is possible is euphorian at best. 

This season is disappointing largely because Tubby Smith recruited a team which is simply not on the court right now. He thought Nolen, White, and Mbakwe would be in a rotation with Westbrook, Joseph, Johnson, Sampson, Paul Carter, Blake Hoffarber, and Iverson. Off-the-court issues prevented this rotation from becoming reality in 2009-10, and Smith deserves some blame for that. However, this program is progressing, and to mention otherwise is simply foolish.

On the ice, cries for coach Don Lucia's dismissal are growing louder, so much so that Athletics Director Joel Maturi took the rare step of backing the coach in a story on the Inside College Hockey site last week. However, there was a key point in the story which needs exploration:
“I can tell you that Don Lucia will be coaching Gopher hockey next year unless he chooses not to,”

That sounds like an out, no?

It's probably nothing, but if the season ended today, Minnesota would finish seventh in the WCHA on the heels of disappointing finishes the past two seasons. The Gophers are 22nd in the PairWise rankings, six spots behind where they need to be to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Despite a roster littered with high draft picks, the Gophers seem destined to finish in the WCHA's second division again this year.

The claims that Lucia cannot develop players have been uttered in years past, and many are uttering the same again this season, citing the slow development of defenseman Aaron Ness as a prime example. It's funny that these claims were not made when Lucia was winning back-to-back NCAA titles in 2002-2003, but with the program struggling now, many old wounds are re-surfacing.

One issue with the current Gopher roster is lack of offensive firepower, and that falls on the coach to some extent. Given the Gophers' position as a premier hockey program, Lucia and his staff have the presumed pick of the litter for hockey talent, especially in the state of Minnesota. Talented players come to the U with reputations as star players but often find the adjustment to the college game difficult. One reason for this may be convincing a prep superstar that he must become a checker in college. Of course, other schools have this same problem every year.

Coach Lucia has another heralded recruiting class on the horizon in 2010-11, and all accounts suggest this group will be as highly-touted as last year's group highlighted by Nick Leddy and Zach Budish. The challenge will be for Lucia to get some scoring punch out of next year's group. Of course, Minnesota hockey fans are growing tired of reading about strong recruiting classes and fighting for home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

The challenge for Lucia and Smith will be to right the ship for the rest of the season. Although Smith will be safe regardless of what happens during the remainder of this season. the pressure on Lucia is a bit more intense. He'll likely need the team to make a run in order to silence his critics who are growing louder as the team's struggles continue.

1 comment:

  1. It appears time for a fresh face to take over the pucksters next year. They need someone that has experience recruiting "outside the box" and bring in 21-year-old Juniors that are content checking. There is no physical aspect to this team whatsoever. The Don is not adjusting to the current game and keeps recruiting 17-year-old finesse players that have their eyes on the next level. It's time to recruit a "team" not a collection of Minnesota draftees.

    With that said, I fully endorse making a run at Rico Blasi as he has been very resourceful in developing a team at a school with very limited resources. We need skill players, leaders, solid goaltending, and kids that know from day-one that they will be role-players.