Friday, January 16, 2009

The Comeback

March 22, 2007, I wrote one of my happiest blog posts to date. That was the day that the University of Minnesota announced the hiring of Tubby Smith as the men’s basketball coach. I had randomly speculated about him moving to a job like Minnesota months earlier with colleagues, and I was not surprised with the move. I also wrote about the reasons he could win in Minnesota on the blog. Now, not even 22 months later, without yet achieving a single NCAA tournament win, Tubby Smith’s teams have already given me two moments of college basketball bliss.

First of course is the Blake Hoffarber shot to beat Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament. Assuming the Big Ten Network survives, I’m looking forward to the 25th anniversary special where a still-teenage-looking Mike Hall looks back on the moments that made the network a must-have franchise. And he’ll show highlights of two things: First, he’ll show the Appalachian State win over Michigan. And then he’ll show the crazy lefty Laettner shot by Hoffarber to beat Indiana. For all the times that the Gopher football team gave up 31 points in the 4th quarter, I’ll always have that shot.

Second, beyond a singular moment, comes a singular sequence of basketball. But to understand it, you have to understand how hard it is to beat Bo Ryan in the Kohl Center. In his eight years as head coach at Wisconsin, Bo Ryan entered the game with a record of 56-3 at home in Big Ten play. I’ve seen so many championship caliber teams walk into that arena and look horrific. I remember numerous Michigan St. squads with more talent and better NCAA tournament performances finding no answer for the Kohl Center. I remember Brian Cook’s final year at Illinois: Cook hit a bucket to give Illinois a one point lead, but in the final seconds, Dee Brown was called for a foul, and Devin Harris hit two free throws to give Wisconsin the Big Ten Title at the expense of the Illini. And I remember some bad Gopher teams playing some absolutely embarrassing basketball while Minnesota products like Kammron Taylor absolutely schooled the Gophers.

And for most of the game Thursday, it was happening again. Wisconsin led Minnesota 41-27. Wisconsin led Minnesota 48-36 with 6:18 left in the game. That’s bad against most teams, but Wisconsin doesn’t turn the ball over. According to, Wisconsin allows the 5th fewest steals per possession and 11th fewest turnovers of any offense in the country. Here were the Badgers running down the shot clock. Here were the Gophers on pace for an embarrassing 44 point offensive output or something similar. And at 52-40 with 4:53 left, there was still no reason to expect anything other than another Bo Ryan home victory.

And that’s when something incredible happened. That’s when a Tubby Smith moment happened. Tubby, a big believer in depth from watching Dean Smith’s teams as a youngster, employs an 11 and sometimes 12 man rotation for the Gophers. And in the final minutes, when Minnesota put on the full court pressure and dived for every lose ball, and jumped higher for every block, the unthinkable happened. The Gophers won in Madison.

Al Nolen with the steal.
Blake Hoffarber with the steal, Lawrence Westbrook lay-up.
Paul Carter steal, to Devron Bostick, back to Carter for the dunk.
But then Wisconsin beat the pressure. Damian Johnson had what seemed to be a sure block, but was called for the foul. But after a seeming make-up foul call on Trevon Hughes, Wisconsin beat the press again. But wait.
Paul Carter with the block!
Damian Johnson for three!
And after two Wisconsin free throws, there was hero Blake Hoffarber, who was absolutely ice cold from three point range, passing the shot up and giving it to Lawrence Westbrook. Westbrook for three. We’re going to overtime!

And in the OT, Wisconsin looked like a tired team. Their shots were coming up short and the Gophers put the game away with Westbrook making 4 straight free throws to ice the game.

Look, I don’t know how good Minnesota can be this year. They still have a lot to prove. But no Dan Monson team was going to come back in the Kohl Center. Few Big Ten teams ever will. Only a Tubby Smith team can come back from down 14 points to beat the Badgers in Madison. Thank you Tubby Smith. Thank you Gopher players. Thank you for an ending I will not soon forget.