The main teaching point Saul Smith stresses to the Minnesota Gophers basketball guards he works with is tempo. “As a former point guard, I think tempo is going to be crucial to any player.
“[Controlling] tempo — whether that’s faster or slow, whatever you play — you are going to be more successful. This is what we preach to our guys,” says Smith, the sixth-year assistant coach who helps develop the team guards.
Does the fact that he once played guard in college help? “I don’t know if it’s easier because I played,” admits Smith. “From my understanding, [players] do enjoy it when a former player tells them something, because they put an extra weight to it.”
Smith played point guard in college — he started his final two seasons at Kentucky, was a member of the 1998 Wildcats national championship squad, and finished his four-year career 10th on the school’s all-time assists list. As a result, he understands what a guard needs and the adjustments required when they first arrive on campus.
“I just present it the way I want it presented to me as a player: calmly with respect, but also hold them accountable. If you can’t get it done, we’ll work on it and we’ll get you better. If you can’t improve because you don’t want to improve, this might not be the place for you,” says Smith.
“All these young men want to get better and want to win. They want to show the university and their families that they are good, and I like that. That’s why I’m here.”
Smith played for his father and current Minnesota Coach Tubby Smith at Kentucky (UK) — the first Black father-son combination to win a national championship — and he served as a special assistant coach while he was completing his degree in economics at UK in 2003-04. He then played two years with the Columbus franchise of the NBA Development League.
However, it was an injury that brought Smith into coaching.
“Because I had never been injured before — I had missed seven or eight games and wanted to be more involved — I asked the coach could I help do some film in preparation for the next game. I really fell in love with the [game] preparation, implementing the game plan and the schemes… I always loved it.”
Before rejoining his father in Minnesota in 2007, Saul Smith was on the Tennessee Tech staff for three seasons (2004-07). “[It was] either that or law school, and I didn’t want to be up at six [in the morning] wearing a suit. I’d rather be up wearing a sweatsuit,” he jokes.
As a teacher, Smith understands the transition from high school to college must be made, and hopefully the particular player won’t be stubbornly resistant. “It is tough,” Smith acknowledges. “You go from being able to dominate athletically in high school to usually not being able to dominate in college.
“There’s always going to be somebody faster, stronger or jumping higher. That jump from your senior year in high school to freshman year in college is extremely difficult, especially if you are playing the most difficult position” — point guard.
“Much like a [football] quarterback, you have to know your job and everyone else’s job and what Coach wants,” explains Smith. “You have to be an extension of the coach on the court. It’s a difficult position.”
As a teacher, Smith points out that it’s a joy to see when his guards “blossom.”
“Once they understand it, see the hurdles that they have to overcome, they are going to get it. Andre Hollins has improved, and Maverick Ahanmisi also has vastly improved. It shows in our games — their turnovers are going down and their shooting percentages are going up, and hopefully their assists will go up.”
Hollins is second in team scoring at nearly 13 points a game. The sophomore guard in November became the first Gopher since 1971 to score 40 or more points in a game when he tallied 41 against Memphis.
As the first guard off the bench, Ahanmisi picked up his 100th career assist early in his junior year against Florida State in November.
“We try to teach our guards, and also coach them in the film room. We’re fortunate enough to have guys who enjoy learning about the game,” continues Smith.
“I like watching that,” he says proudly. “It is one of my passions to watch that kid finally get it.”
Did you know…?
Smith’s dad accomplished a historic feat earlier this year. What was it? (Answer in next week’s “View”)
Answer to last week’s question: According to MinnPost’s David Brauer, there is only one Black in the top 50 Minnesota Twitter rankings. Name the person. LaVelle Neal of the Minneapolis StarTribune, who covers the Twins, is third with over 22,000 Twitter followers.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.