clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Profile Of A Possible Savior: Tubby Smith

Previously on Profile Of A Possible Savior:

Blaine Taylor (ODU)
Cuonzo Martin (Missouri State)

Brian Gregory (Dayton)

Chris Mooney (Richmond)
Gregg Marshall (Wichita State)
Keno Davis (Providence)
Darrin Horn (South Carolina)

Today's installment: Tubby Smith, the 59-year-old head coach at the University of Minnesota.


Important Questions, In Rough Order Of Importance:

1. Has he coached teams that have won a national title, made multiple deep NCAA tournament runs, and/or consistently been highly ranked?

Yes. At Kentucky he won a national championship in his very first season. He took the Wildcats to the NCAAs in each of his 10 seasons and never lost a game in the first round. In six out of the ten years, Kentucky went at least as far as the Sweet Sixteen. Four times they reached the Elite Eight, but Smith's first Final Four was his last. His Kentucky teams finished a season ranked in the AP top-10 on six different occasions. Kentucky was a pre-season top-25 team every year under Tubby.

He also led both Tulsa and Georgia to the Sweet Sixteen.

2. Has he built a program from the ground up?

For the most part, no. While he quickly built Tulsa into a Missouri Valley heavyweight, the team he inherited hadn't had a losing season in several years. His first two teams continued that mediocrity before they made the big leap forward.

He was only at Georgia for two seasons, and the Bulldogs were 18-10 the year prior to his arrival.

Kentucky, of course, was already a powerhouse thanks to Rick Pitino. The Cats won the title in 1996 and reached the Final Four again the next season. Smith maintained that excellence in his first season by leading them back and winning another title.

Minnesota is the closest he's come to a true rebuilding job; the Gophers were struggling through NCAA sanctions and went 9-22 the year before he got there.

3. Has he substantially improved the program from when he took over?

He did substantially improve both Tulsa and Minnesota. As I mentioned earlier, he inherited a mediocre Tulsa program and made it into one of the Missouri Valley's best. Prior to 1994 (which was his third season), the Golden Hurricane hadn't won a league title or been to the NCAAs since 1987. His last two Tulsa teams went 15-3 in league play, won the regular season title, and reached the Sweet Sixteen.

The Gophers went from 9-22 (3-13) to 20-14 (8-10) in his first season and went to the NIT. They won 20+ games overall and nine conference games in each of the next two seasons and earned an NCAA bid both times. They're on track to do the same in 2011.

Georgia went 21-10 (9-7) and 24-9 (10-6) in his two seasons there (1996 and 1997), which was not a substantial improvement on their 18-10 (9-7) mark the year before his arrival. The difference was he got the Bulldogs into the polls and into the NCAA tournament, neither of which had been done since 1991. In those terms the change was significant; in terms of wins and losses, not so much.

At Kentucky he saw great initial success before his program hit a three-year lull that saw the team lose 10 games each season. Three more years of great success followed before the program hit another lull--it was this last lull that ultimately ended his tenure at Kentucky.

4. Has he succeeded at more than one head coaching job?

Yep. He has taken four schools to the NCAA tournament, three of them to the second weekend, and he's never had a losing season.

5. Does he have significant high-major experience as either a head coach or an assistant?

He is a slam dunk yes in this regard, as you've probably noticed by now. He's been a high-major head coach since 1995 and spent several years as an assistant at South Carolina and Kentucky.

6. Is his team one of the best in its conference right now?

No. The Gophers are 16-7 (5-6), in a three-way tie for 5th in the Big Ten. Pomeroy projects a 9-9 conference record. His Minnesota teams have yet to finish above .500 or above 6th place in league play. He brought the program up a level, no question, but it looks to be a bit stagnant right now.

7. Do his teams actually play, what is this thing called, "defense"?

Yes. At its heart, that's what "TubbyBall" is all about. Kentucky ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency from 2003-2005, while his last two squads were in the top 50. He's had two top-50 defenses at Minnesota and another that was close (56). That's enough to dismiss my concerns at this end of the floor.

His man-to-man system, called the "ball-line defense," immediately turned the Gophers into an outstanding collection of thieves. Minnesota ranked 316th in steal percentage the year before he got there, 7th the next. Turnovers are a big part of his defensive success and they've done a good job forcing them, the current season excepted.

So what is the ball-line defense? Basically it is a pressure man system with some zone concepts. The brief video available here will give you some idea.

See also: Tubby's rules for ball-line defense.


It all gets complicated when players have to factor in all of the rotations -- some of it based on line positioning -- and the constant pressure necessary to execute it well, Carter said.

"When you're in the right spot, it's easy," Carter said. "When you're in the wrong spot, everything goes wrong."

In Smith's system, there are two perpendicular lines: the ball line, which runs across the court and lines up wherever the ball is, and the midline, an imaginary line from one basket to the other. The two lines help determine the positioning of defenders.

J.D. Barnett, who taught Smith about the ball-line defense when he played for Barnett at High Point (N.C.), can explain the philosophy in layman's terms.

"The ball line is supposed to have good ball pressure [and] be strong from the inside out,"

A Sea of Blue:

The ball-line defense is designed to prevent easier, close-in shots and force more difficult outside shots, preferably contested ones. Back in 2003-2004, the SuffoCats demonstrated just how effective the ball-line can can be when it is run with commitment. It also takes time to learn -- Chuck Hayes famously said that it took him a year just to learn the defense.

The ball-line suffers from a couple of weaknesses, especially when the defenders aren't committed to it's principles or don't understand them well. The weakness that used to endlessly irritate Kentucky fans was the propensity for the ball-line to surrender open looks at 3-pointers. Why does this happen? A look at the illustration will tell you.

The ball-line requires defenders on the weak side to sink to the level of the basketball, and to the mid-line of the court, while keeping an eye on the ball. You can see from the illustration that the 3 is completely open, with his defender in proper position. A skip pass from the 4 will get an open look, especially if the 3 moves a bit toward the corner.

(Click through to see the diagram.)

Based on ASoB's diagram and the video I linked above, you can see why three-pointers present a problem for this particular defense, especially when players aren't running it correctly. The ball-line acts like a zone in that when it's doing its thing, opponents fire up a lot of threes. Smith's teams force opponents to shoot threes 36 or 37 percent of the time, which is a high figure.

I dug into this particular aspect of Smith's D to try to gauge the extent of the problem. Clearly it's not a huge deal since the overall defensive efficiency numbers are fine.

Minn 3FG% D in B10 play (conf rank in parenthesis)
2011: 34.1 (4)
2010: 37.1 (11)
2009: 36.8 (9)
2008: 35.2 (8)


Kentucky 3FG% D in SEC play:
2007: 35.4 (5)
2006: 36.8 (12)
2005: 31.7 (4)
2004: 32.2 (2)
2003: 28.3 (1)
2002: 34.5 (8)
2001: 34.3 (7)
2000: 34.5 (7)

In seven of the last 12 years, Tubby's teams have finished in the bottom half of the league in terms of 3FG% defense. But the raw percentages aren't huge--it's not like we're talking about foes burying 40% of their attempts or something--and haven't meant that much to the grand scheme. I can live with 34-35 percent. This weakness doesn't make or break the defense, though I'm sure it's annoying at times.

Still yet more.

8. Any indication that he can recruit McDonald’s All-American-type players?

Yes. He landed some big-time kids at Kentucky, which is no surprise seeing as how it's Kentucky. But his recruiting at Kentucky was inconsistent; it became one of the bigger knocks against him as time wore on, and perhaps the primary reason for his eventual demise, er, resignation. This outstanding and thorough post, written shortly after his departure from Kentucky, offers some key insight. (It touches on all aspects of Smith's tenure and I highly recommend it.)

After a roster crunch left Jamaal Magloire and a then-sophomore (*) Tayshaun Prince with little help in the 2000 campaign, help arrived in the form of surprise recruit Jason Parker and a few hidden gems in Gerald Fitch, Erik Daniels and Cliff Hawkins. Such classes -- one or two bona fides and a slew of rough-cut diamonds -- seemed to be Tubby's recruiting style. The philosophy being that you couldn't stock your roster with one-year wonders, you had to balance it with four-year guys. Seems logical enough.


Whether it was his stubborness or poor scouting, Smith never could get the Burger Boy talents to work in his system. One by one the big names disappeared, either literally (Stone, Carruth) or figuratively (Barbour, Morris). And while the afterthoughts continued to surprise and over-perform -- guys like Fitch, Daniels and the fan favorite Chuck Hayes -- the margin for error got slimmer and slimmer. Finally, the inevitable happened, and the four-year guys, the scrappy overachivers, stopped overachieving. And the bottom fell out.


What Tubby Smith left behind is a depleted roster with some raw ability and an unimaginable -- for a non-probation Kentucky program -- amount of holes. There literally is no junior class next season. Jared Carter's redshirt year and the departure of Adam Williams to Marshall last season means a void in experience.

That's fairly worrisome stuff. He has had some successes at Minnesota:

So far Smith has been able to outrecruit Texas and Kansas for four-star recruit Devoe Joseph (2008 Class), Maryland, Clemson and Georgia Tech for four-star recruit Ralph Sampson III (2008), Michigan State and Wisconsin for five-star recruit Royce White (2009). The Gophers also beat out Florida for three-star recruit Colton Iverson (2008) and most recently Memphis for three-star recruit Austin Hollins (2010) and Pittsburgh and Connecticut for three-star recruit Mo Walker (2010).

...but only two of his classes have cracked's top 30. One class ranked 16th, another 27th, and that's it. Which goes to illustrate the issue with consistency he had at Kentucky. He's getting enough talented kids to build solid teams, but the year-to-year success necessary for building something more hasn't always been there. Can he land premium players without the big Kentucky brand behind him?

9. Does he run the Princeton offense?

No. His offense does not rely heavily on three-pointers, but it is very much a half-court attack. The pace tends to be anywhere from slow to average.

His last five Kentucky teams ranked in the top 25 in offensive efficiency. His first two Minnesota teams were modestly effective, which points to growing pains as much as anything else. The 2010 offense ranked the top 40, as does this year's offense. While the profile isn't especially consistent, his teams tend to shoot well and do a pretty good job on the offensive glass.

10. Does he have any connection to NC State, North Carolina, or the ACC?

Yes. Smith went to college at High Point, where he played basketball and met his wife. He spent a couple of years coaching high school ball in NC, and one of his sons was born in North Carolina. He still has family in the state. He's from Maryland originally, while his wife has family in Virginia, so they're familiar with the area.

11. Any other random red flags or positives?

There's this.


Would he be better than Sid?


Would he be better than Herb?

Depends on how you define "better." At this point in his career, is he a guy who represents a clear step up from the 8-9 conference win level? I'm not sure. He hasn't won more than 9 conference games in a season since 2005, and I think a lot of folks would argue that his time as an elite coach has passed. There is no question that he is a better coach than Herb Sendek, but his recruiting record is spotty and he might not be able to draw enough premium talent to NC State to really elevate the program beyond the Herb Equilibrium.

Would he take the job if offered?

I think so. You might remember his name popping up in a few different places last spring--Oregon, Auburn, Virginia. He has been frustrated by Minnesota's unwillingness to move forward on a new practice facility for his program. So he seems like a guy who would be receptive to another change in scenery. His deal with Minnesota--I believe still in effect despite talk of an extension last year--pays him 1.8 million annually, so we could offer a decent raise without breaking the bank.

How would I feel if he were hired?

I think he would make NC State better in a hurry and get us back into the NCAAs--he's done that everywhere and if he can do it at Minnesota, he'll do it here. The key question is: what's his ceiling? Smith to me seems like a high-floor, low-ceiling guy. That makes him a solid hire for sure--we can get back to regular NCAA bids--but beyond that, it's hard to know what to expect.

I would be fine with Tubby and more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt--he's more than earned that--but I can't deny that his record over the last 5-6 years, along with his rep as a mediocre recruiter, would temper my enthusiasm somewhat.

How would the fan base as a whole feel if he were hired?

We'd have some people like me who will look at the last five years and wonder if he still has what it takes to win big, but I think the excitement level would be high in general. After all, his track record is undeniable, and it's not often you get to hire a coach who has won a national championship at this level.