Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Shaka on?

Tubby Smith was fired Monday as head basketball coach of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. What started out as a promising season (ranked as high as #8 in the country) finished with a thud (ninth place finish in the Big Ten conference; one and done in the Big Ten tournament). A 20-point victory over UCLA in the opening round of the NCAA tourney Friday evening seemed to give Smith a temporary reprieve. However, the Gophs were soundly defeated by Florida in their second round game Sunday, and Smith was relieved of his duties less than 24 hours later.

So who's next?

I don't think there's any question that Athletic Director Norwood Teague will at least inquire about Virginia Commonwealth University basketball coach Shaka Smart. Before Teague became the U of M's AD last year, he served in the same capacity at VCU when Smart, who will be 36 on April 8, was hired there in 2009. Smart has assembled an impressive resume in his four seasons as coach of the Rams. In just his second season, he guided VCU to the Final Four after toppling #1 seed Kansas in the Southwest regional final of the 2011 NCAA tourney. A week later, Smart was rewarded with an eight-year contract extension. Another resume enhancer is the fact Smart won his 100th career game this past January, making him the second youngest coach to accomplish such a feat. Despite all that, it's not a certainty that Smart ends up at the U, as he turned down an offer last year to coach another Big Ten team, the University of Illinois Fighting Illini.

If indeed Smart nixes the Gophers, who else would be in the mix?

One name I've heard bandied about (both when Dan Monson was fired in 2007 and when Smith has been on the proverbial hot seat the past few seasons) is former Gopher basketball player and Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders. I would be somewhat surprised if he's the guy, simply because college hoops is a whole different animal. Saunders has no practical experience in the recruiting game, something that needs to be an emphasis given how the Big Ten is loaded with serious blue chippers. On the flip side (no pun intended), Saunders would have an edge over a fair number of his NCAA counterparts in that he actually knows how to coach the game. It seems far too many of today's college coaches are great recruiters but often lack the basic acumen of coaching (e.g. clock management, matchups, etc.).

Other possibilities may include:

  • Brad Stevens, 36, who led Butler to consecutive title game appearances in 2010 and 2011. 
  • Fred Hoiberg, 40, who just completed his third season at Iowa State. The Cyclones have gone to the NCAA tournament each of the past two seasons, winning 23 games both years.
  • Jay Wright, 51, has been at Villanova the past 12 seasons, guiding the Wildcats to eight NCAA tournament appearances in the past nine years.

In the press conference conducted by the U Monday, AD Teague mentioned that there will be no "search committee" retained for this process. That to me indicates he has a definite plan in place to find the next Gophers coach. Teague has a great opportunity here to make an indelible mark on the U of M athletics program, especially in light of the moribund tenure of former AD Joel Maturi. Personally, I'm hoping Teague makes the smart move (yes, pun intended).


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