GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP)—Tubby Smith spent most of the past decade at a place where NCAA tournament bids were an every-year requirement and the expectation was to contend for a national championship.
The goals are a little more modest this time around.
Smith is back in the tournament for the first time since leaving Kentucky, guiding Minnesota to its first NCAA appearance in four years. And Smith—in his second season with the Golden Gophers—is savoring the moment as his team prepares to face Texas in the first round of the East Regional on Thursday.
“You know, it doesn’t get any better,” Smith said Wednesday. “The excitement around it, and your juices get flowing, your energy level is up.
“I think this … sends a message to our players and to our team that we’re building. We’re moving in the right direction, that they can see the progress we’re making in the program.”
Anything is better than where Minnesota (22-10) was just two seasons ago, when they won nine games and had a midseason coaching change. Smith arrived a year later after a 10-year run at Kentucky that included a national championship in his first season, guiding the Gophers to 20 wins and an NIT berth.
“The first thing that he changed was the mindset and attitude of the team,” forward Jamal Abu-Shamala said. “Really, he wanted us to have a championship attitude, and just have faith and believe in each other that we can achieve big goals.”
Minnesota got off to its best start in more than 30 years to raise expectations before hitting a bumpy stretch in January that lasted through the end of the regular season. Regardless, despite losing nine of 15 to close the year, the Gophers did enough to earn a No. 10 seed and give their players their first taste of the tournament.
“That’s what this is about,” Smith said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the culmination, because the good thing about it is you hear from players you haven’t heard from in a while. They’re excited for you and they’re pulling for you.”
Coincidentally, Smith’s former program—where he didn’t win quite enough to satsify the demanding Wildcat fans—missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 18 years. But Smith is more worried about making sure his current players enjoy the trip, down to taking time to see a movie together as a team this week.
“He’s been really laid back,” junior Lawrence Westbrook said. “We have a lot of time to rest, and everything’s just been really chill. So I think he just wants us to be as comfortable as possible playing in the biggest game of our lives.”
Inexperience isn’t a problem for Texas (22-11), the region’s No. 7 seed. The Longhorns have been to the tournament for 11 straight years, including runs to the regional finals in both 2006 and 2008.
“I think that’s what we have going for us,” senior A.J. Abrams said. “We’re bringing back a lot of guys that have a lot of tournament experience. I don’t think we have that ‘Wow’ factor. We’re just taking it as one game. We have Minnesota ahead of us, and that’s what we’re focused on.”
The game will be a homecoming for both Smith and Texas coach Rick Barnes. Smith played in college at nearby High Point, while Barnes is a native of Hickory—roughly 100 miles west of Greensboro—and attended Lenoir-Rhyne College.
They have something else in common, too: their seasons took a downward trajectory late in the season.
Despite losing point guard D.J. Augustin early to the NBA draft, Texas entered the year ranked in the top 10 behind Abrams. But after a 15-4 start, the Longhorns suffered a three-game losing streak in what was just the beginning of a second-half fade. Texas went 7-7 to close the regular season, including a 76-70 loss to Baylor in the Big 12 tournament that ended a 24-game winning streak in the series.
“Obviously D.J. was a guy that when things weren’t working could make something out of nothing,” Barnes said. “At times, with people backing off certain players (defensively) and players having to learn to handle that individually, we had to learn to handle that as a team. It can be frustrating and we’ve seen that.
“We’ve seen guys have a tough time shooting the ball and a year ago they shot it well. As a coaching staff and a team, you’re hoping maybe this is the time we’re going to do it.”