Here are some things Tubby Smith said in the press conference following Tuesday's game against Illinois: "pathetic defensively"; "didn't show toughness"; "lacked aggressiveness". In case you were wondering, the Gophers did not win. I find that Tubby is usually a bit hard in his team's defensive effort. It's true that they often give up open jumpers but they often make up for it with their aggressive ball pressure, creating turnovers in the backcourt and generally disrupting their opponent's execution. But boy, they sure didn't do any of that stuff against Illinois who, with a 2-9 conference record, was sitting in a tie for ninth in the Big Ten.
Trouble started early when it became very clear that Illinois center Shaun Pruitt was much, much to quick for the Gophers' Spencer Tollackson, easily beating him with a succession of baseline pivot moves. Tubby adjusted by switching to a 2-3 zone but this was even less successful; the Illini busted the zone with good three-point shooting while also managing to find open looks inside, the supposed strong point of that defense. Now, the hallmark of the Gophers' defense thus far has been aggression (rather than, say, poise or presence of mind) but, in this game, they were even less disciplined than normal. The Gophers (particularly Dan Coleman and Spencer Tollackson) repeatedly over-committed to ballhandlers and then compounded the problem by rotating poorly to open players. To their credit, Illinois executed their offense extremely well, baffling the Gophers with crisp motion and screens. They also finished with authority, shooting a remarkable 59% from the floor (including 7-13 from three). But the U's help defense was a step slow all night, resulting in many open shots, fouls and three point plays. It is often said that bad defense stymies a team's own offense and this was true for the Gophers in one concrete way, in particular. Lawrence McKenzie, the team's best pure scorer, fouled out after playing only 17 minutes; three of those fouls were committed at the basket as he was covering for out-of-position teammates.
Soul and Fire
Occasionally--very occasionally--a team can overcome such lack of defensive effort and wherewithal by shooting well themselves. Well, the Gophers were just as bad on offense as they were on defense. They struggled all night to get good shots and then missed the ones they did get. Their best offensive players--McKenzie and Coleman--took only five shots between them and in the second half, when the game was really decided, the team made a staggeringly awful 20.5% of their shots. Pretty hot stuff, fellas. Probably the most troubling thing about it was that when they got near the basket they looked tentative. The shied from contact; they faded away; they weekly pushed the ball at the hoop. I have occasionally wondered, with some sympathy, what it must be like for those unlucky folks at the Y who catch glimpses of me playing one-on-one. I wonder no longer.
For his part, Tubby seems a bit perplexed by this bunch he's inherited. He's remarked before on the team's unpredictable temperament. They are an unselfish, "mature" group (his words). They want to win terribly and get extremely fired up for games--and yet their effort is pretty uneven and they don't always fight hard for victories. Its hard to know why this happens. I do know, from extended experience playing on many averagely talented but very bad teams, that there is a certain cold-hearted meanness (which the teams I was on never had) required to win consistently. It's that kind of scary pride that, rather than asking after the sources of bad fortune, takes a vengeful offense at it. I think its probably part of what makes so many great athletes such terrible assholes. In any case, many signs--Dan Coleman taking only two shots in the game; Spencer Tollackson grabbing a whopping zero rebounds in the first half; getting crushed at home by one of the worst teams in the conference--suggest that these Gophers don't have it.
King Me, Baby
Just one more thing. I know I've harped on coaches before (and Tubby in particular) but I have a request for anybody who plans on going to a U of M men's basketball game this year (or any time I guess). Please, please resist the urge to give Tubby a worshipful, full-throated standing ovation when you've only tepidly applauded the Gophers' starting lineup. Tubby is a nice guy and a good coach but he's not Winston Churchill. He's not even Walter Mondale. He is the coach. Of a sports team. He doesn't even play in the game. The players, remember them? They're the ones who donate their bodies and most of their lives that we can feel some fleeting pride in our state, so that we can enjoy ourselves for an evening.
It's not just my own home state's coach-worship that's burning me. You may know that Bobby Knight resigned last week and I haven't been this grossed out by revisionist fawning since Reagan died. In what world is this vile dude honestly considered a teacher, or anything other than an abusive boor? Where do we get this romance with authority? Do we take some kind of vicarious satisfaction in seeing middle-aged men enforce their notions of structure and discipline on their seemingly wild, outrageously physically gifted charges? Though we idolize the players' young, potent bodies, do we resent the ease and freedom they bestow? And do we secretly enjoy seeing those athletic young guys submit to an enforced system, as if it might somehow justify our own circumscribed lives? Our own dying bodies?