Some have argued the Gophers can do better than a coach whose teams consistently start strong only to fade to the NCAA tournament bubble or off it every February. Others have insisted a program with modest tradition like Minnesota is lucky to have a coach who is annually in NCAA tournament contention at all.
We'll soon find out who's right because Minnesota has apparently decided to part ways with Smith and go in a new direction. First-year athletic director Norwood Teague fired Smith on Monday afternoon in the wake of the Gophers' second-round NCAA tournament loss to Florida the previous day.
In Smith's six years with the Gophers, he reached the NCAA Tournament three times and advanced past the first round only once. Minnesota's best Big Ten finish under Smith was sixth and the Gophers never finished above .500 in league play.
Smith's exit comes on the heels of a season that typified both the positive and negative aspects of his tenure.
Flush with enough talent and experience to compete in even the strongest Big Ten in recent memory, Minnesota started the season 15-1 and climbed into the top 10 in the polls after a 3-0 start to league play. It was a slow descent into mediocrity from there, however, as the Gophers lost 10 of 15 to close the Big Ten season, fell in the opening round of the conference tournament and temporarily righted themselves with an NCAA tournament win over shorthanded UCLA before losing to Florida.
A season that ended with Smith's first NCAA tournament victory at Minnesota would not be a disappointment if it weren't part of a larger trend. The Gophers landed in the NIT last year after losing eight of 11 to close the regular season and dropped 10 of 11 the year before to miss the postseason altogether.
Whether firing Smith turns out to be a good decision will of course depend on who the Gophers can lure as a replacement and whether they invest in a facilities upgrade the way they promised Smith but failed to deliver.
The dream candidate is probably Shaka Smart since Teague was the athletic director who hired him at VCU. Perhaps that gives Teague the slightest chance of pulling off such a move, but it's hard to imagine Smart jumping at the Minnesota gig when he already passed on a better Big Ten gig at Illinois last year and he may have a shot at UCLA this spring.
Beyond Smart, Minnesota alum and former Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders has been mentioned in connection with the job. And there are surely other candidates who will surface during the Gophers' search.
It's understandable Minnesota doesn't want to settle for the modest success Smith has produced, but the Gophers also have to realize this is a mid-tier Big Ten job at best at the moment.
Teague is taking a gamble jettisoning Smith. Now it's up to him to find someone better.
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