Tubby Smith has turned Minnesota around, but a first-round exit in the NCAA tournament won’t be acceptable to him in his third season.
Smith’s 25th-ranked Golden Gophers open 2009-10 on Friday night against Tennessee Tech, hoping to duplicate last season’s fast start while looking for a better ending.
The former Kentucky coach has engineered a quick turnaround at Minnesota, which went 9-22 in 2006-07 before he arrived. The Gophers were 20-14 and reached the NIT in Smith’s first season before last season’s squad finished 22-11 after a first-round NCAA loss to Texas.
Guiding the Gophers to their first NCAA tournament in four years isn’t enough for the coach who won a national championship with the Wildcats in 1998.
“We’ve tasted postseason play at the NCAA level. Now what? What do we have to do to go deeper into the tournament?” Smith said.
Minnesota took advantage of a soft non-conference schedule to open 12-0 last season. That could be difficult to duplicate with road games against No. 11 Butler, Miami and possibly UCLA in a Thanksgiving week tournament before play begins in the Big Ten, which features six teams in the Top 25.
Smith, though, returns his top eight scorers from last season, with all-conference guard Lawrence Westbrook leading the way. Westbrook - one of two holdovers from 2006-07 - averaged 12.6 points to pace the Gophers.
The Gophers are looking for a better season from top perimeter shooter Blake Hoffarber, who shot 34.1 percent from beyond the arc in 2008-09 as a sophomore after making 42.7 percent as a freshman. His woes were a major reason Minnesota ranked last in the Big Ten in 3-point shooting at 32.7 percent.
“People were flying out at me last year on my 3-point shot,” Hoffarber said. “I was looking at film and realizing what they were doing and how they were guarding me.”
Junior Al Nolen will start in the backcourt with Westbrook, but could eventually cede time to sophomore Devoe Joseph. Joseph struggled to average 5.0 points last season, but averaged 19.0 in two exhibition games this year.
“Well just being a freshman, you know you come into a new system, and it’s not always the exact same as how it is in high school, so it’s a learning process, you know?” Joseph said. “And even for my sophomore and junior year I’m just expecting to keep learning and getting better and better every year.”
Friday’s game will be a coaching reunion, as Tennessee Tech coach Mike Sutton was an assistant under Smith from 1994-2002. Sutton is in his eighth season, and his Golden Eagles went 12-18 in 2008-09.
Tennessee Tech has one returning player who averaged in double digits last season. Frank Davis scored 10.0 points per game and is expected to be the only senior in the starting lineup Friday.
Minnesota won the lone previous meeting with Tennessee Tech in the 1986-87 season.