MINNEAPOLIS -- With South Dakota State standout Nate Wolters sidelined by an ankle injury, Minnesota had essentially won the game before it started. But the program’s intriguing surge, the current plotline in Tubby Smith’s inconsistent tenure, continued as the No. 14 Gophers (9-1), beat the Jackrabbits, 88-64, at Williams Arena Tuesday night.
This might be the team Smith thought he’d recruited in past years but eventually lost because of legal drama, injuries and transfers. This might be the team he’d vowed to assemble when he arrived in 2007. And it might be the squad that is -- for the first time -- potentially as good as his preseason vision.
But this is not the same Smith. He is laid back and loose. He stomps less and claps more. He opens up the locker room to the media now. He tells funny stories, like the one about his growing mustache, which his wife, Donna, apparently hates.
Smith, it seems, is comfortable.
The sixth-year coach told ESPN.com that the new NCAA rules on summer practice helped him develop a stronger bond with this year’s squad.
“It was a big help to me,” Smith said about the offseason workouts.
This year’s Gophers are arguably bigger, longer, faster, deeper and presumably better than any squad he’s had at this juncture of a season. They’re so talented that former all-Big Ten forward Trevor Mbakwe, who is a year removed from a torn ACL, comes off the bench.
“We’ve got a lot of depth right now and that’s key. We don’t have much drop off,” Smith said. “You’re bringing in a guy who’s probably a pro in Trevor Mbakwe. … It’s the most depth [I’ve had].”
And within that new nucleus, Smith may have a star who has been given the freedom all playmakers desire.
Andre Hollins looks like a potential all-Big Ten guard. He had 20 points (finished with 22) in the first half and hit 6 of 7 3-pointers against the Jackrabbits. He scored 41 points in a win over Memphis in the Battle 4 Atlantis over Thanksgiving weekend.
“I have a feel for all the guys around me and that pays off in the end in the games because I know what to expect,” Hollins said. “It’s just that experience.”
His production is critical for both Smith and the program.
Entering the 2012-13 season, Smith had no promises, even though he’d finally signed an extension in the offseason that had been discussed for years. He’d started strong in the past -- 10-2 in 2007-08, 12-0 in 2008-09, 11-1 in 2010-11, 12-1 in 2011-12 -- but reached the NCAA tournament just twice (2009 and 2010). And he still hasn’t won a game in the Big Dance since he left Kentucky.
And that’s what matters for the fans who expected more when Smith landed in Minneapolis nearly a decade removed from a national title run with the Wildcats. They’re still waiting.
That’s why this early push is promising, but not definitive. Unless the Gophers are competitive in the Big Ten, and they reach the NCAA tournament -- and win there, too -- this year will resemble other lukewarm efforts by the program under Smith.
Not that Smith hadn’t planned properly in previous seasons.
The same year (2009-10) that the Gophers and every other high major program passed on Wolters, now a 6-4 NBA prospect who’s averaging 20.8 ppg for the Jackrabbits, he added now-NBA rookie Royce White, a Mr. Basketball in the state of Minnesota who transferred to Iowa State before he ever played a game for the Gophers. And that’s where it all went wrong. Legal issues, academic problems, knee injuries and multiple transfers plagued the program for the next two years.
But things seem stable at the Barn now. And if the mood sticks, Smith may finally appease the fan base and satisfy his own ambitions by competing in March.
He has the pieces to achieve both.
“I think [succeeding in the postseason is] something that we definitely need to do,” said senior Rodney Williams. “We [have] one of the best teams that has been in this program in a while. We want to go out there and represent. I definitely think it’s a must for us.”