By Charles Hallman
Tubby Smith last month became only the third Minnesota coach to lead the Gophers to the NIT championship game. The school is now 2-2 in such games played in New York City.
The season — nearly one-third of it, almost 80 days — was marred with injuries where Gopher players were hurt this season, including senior forward Trevor Mbakwe. To show just how much he was missed, despite only playing seven games before a knee injury shelved him for the remainder of the season, Mbakwe still finished as the team’s on-average scoring and rebounding leader (14 points, nine rebounds).
That in itself tells the Gopher men’s story this year.
“We lost our senior leadership,” notes Smith. “The season once again was one of those up-and-down seasons. I don’t know if there’s anything we could’ve done differently. I thought everything played itself out.”
However, the conference’s post-season gave the U of M new life, going 1-1, then 4-1 in the NIT to close the season.
“Going to Madison Square Garden was a real feat for this group,” admits Smith.
Minnesota has 12 returnees, and now that sophomore guard Chip Armelin announced that he is leaving, a scholarship has opened up for Mbakwe, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility if he so chooses to return.
The two questions are: Will Mbakwe return next season, and can he successfully return to form after a torn ACL injury?
Nonetheless, the other returnees must seriously improve over the off-season. Smith notes that the new rules that allow coaches to work individually with them eight hours a week this summer is a huge plus. “We’ve got some young players. We need that type of attention.”
The one success, however, that wasn’t recognized was how the Gopher players performed off the court this season. “They had a great semester academically,” Coach Smith told the MSR after meeting with reporters April 5.
“We didn’t have a lot of guys who made all-academic [teams], but I had five guys with 2.9’s. We didn’t have anybody in bad shape — everybody’s in good shape [academically]. I’m really proud of that.”
During the NCAA Final Four, Smith sat in the row of seats immediately behind the team benches with several active and retired coaches who have won at least one NCAA championship. Smith won the 1998 NCAA title at Kentucky, one of only three Black men to do so. “It was a real honor sitting among those great coaches,” he says.
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