Tubby Smith’s Minnesota Gophers in Free-Fall, Time to Talk Replacements?

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Those who are not familiar with Tubby Smith’s tenure as the University of Minnesota Men’s Basketball coach may be surprised to see him on the hot seat. I mean, his squad is 17-7 and sitting pretty for a favorable seed in the tourney. Most of the Gophers’ losses have been to quality opponents and they’re only one game under .500 in a tough, tough Big Ten conference. If they beat non-ranked opponents and lose to ranked opponents to round up their Big Ten season, Tubby’s boys will finish 21-10 (9-9 in conference) and will definitely get a bid to the tourney. That’s the positive outlook.

Here’s the negative: The Gophers have lost six of eight, including a brutal loss to lowly Northwestern and to Illinois at home. In that span, they stole a home win against Iowa in which they trailed most of the way, which would have definitely derailed their season. They’ve fallen from the national rankings after being ranked as high as eighth on Jan. 12. Not so bad, right?

The problem is this late-season funk is all too familiar. Every year, Tubby’s team gets out to a hot start only to stumble in Big Ten play. In his career at Minnesota, Smith has compiled a 43-58 conference record. His best finish is sixth place with a 9-9 record, which he did twice–both those years ended with first round exit in the NCAA Tournament.

Tubby’s career at Minnesota hasn’t been bad, but it hasn’t been very good either. When Smith came from Kentucky, expectations were through the roof. He was expected to lead the U to college basketball relevance and NCAA Tournament victories. Tubby could be seen on campus signing burritos, shaking hands with students or on ubiquitous ‘Tubby Time’ T-shirts. The vibe has changed over time from excited, to anxious, to apathetic to downright angry–perhaps culminating on Sunday when a disgruntled crowd at Williams Arena watched their confused Gophers give up a late lead to Illinois.

So yes, despite Tubby’s logistically complicated extension, he’s on the hot seat. While he’s still a ways from losing his job, if he can’t right the ship this season, athletic director Norwood Teague may be conducting a coaching search sooner than he had planned. Just for fun, here’s a couple of logical candidates who come to mind: Flip Saunders and Shaka Smart.

Some may call that shortlist more of a wishlist, but there are signs that point to these two as legitimate options. Saunders is a Minnesota alum who is still a fan favorite from his days as the Minnesota Timberwolves head coach. His daughters attend the University, Flip has a home in the Twin Cities and he’s been out of coaching for two years now. Shaka is seemingly in a comfortable situation at VCU, but guess who hired him there? Norwood Teague. It makes sense that if anyone could lure the 35-year-old to a major program, it would be the guy who hired him in the first place. Despite his insistence that he is happy at VCU, he must wonder if he could hack it in the Big 10.

Again, at this point, this is all speculation. But if Tubby’s kids stay in self-destruct mode and drop a few cupcake games down the stretch, they could complete an epic freefall from Top 10 in the nation to NIT party crashers. The Gophers current record may not indicate it, but the clock is ticking on ‘Tubby Time’.

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