I couldn’t get anyone to say anything interesting about Tubby Smith. I thought this might hinder my efforts to write a feature about his first season at Texas Tech, until I realized something important..
Tubby Smith isn’t in the business of being interesting.
That’s part of what made him an ill fit at Kentucky, where the slowed-down style dubbed “Tubbyball” helped him win the 1998 national title that is still his calling card in coaching circles. It also got him on the bad side of Big Blue Nation, who howled with frustration watching prize recruit Rajon Rondo walking the ball up the court between 2005-2006. A couple of 12+ loss seasons put the writing on the wall, so Smith jumped to Minnesota before he could be pushed out.
Billy Gillispie followed Smith at Kentucky and preceded him at his current posting at Texas Tech. Gillispie’s antics in Lexington and Lubbock served very well to show fans that they could do worse than Orlando Smith… a lot worse.
Which begs the question: outside of Gillispiean context, is Tubby Smith a good coach? Is he what Texas Tech needs to survive the shark-infested Big 12?
I’m going to say yes, and I’m going to tell you why.
First of all, let’s look at the culture of Texas Tech over the past few years. The school has made national waves by hiring brilliant mavericks – Bobby Knight, Billy Gillispie and former football coach Mike Leach – and that’s been good and bad. Talented athletes have made their way to Lubbock and the school is a known quantity to recruits and fans. On the flipside, altercations between high-strung coaches and the players under their charge have added a powerful negative stigma to the headlines.
You’ve heard the saying “There’s no such thing as bad press,” but we might have to re-evaluate that statement from time to time. Tech’s reputation was damaged by those reports, which has affected the school’s ability to attract top talent of the coaching and athletic variety ever since.
From that vantage point, Tubby Smith looks like the safe choice. He wins, and he doesn’t cause controversy. He attracts positive attention. I mean, here I am writing about a program I tabbed to finish dead last in the Big 12 this season. That’s the Tubby effect.
And Tubby Smith wins games. His career mark of 511 wins to 226 losses (a .693 winning percentage) is somewhat distorted by that single national title, representing a career achievement that somehow detracts from every subsequent season in which he fails to approach the same lofty heights. He won at Tulsa, he won at Georgia and he won at Minnesota. He’ll win at Texas Tech, though not right away by any stretch of the imagination.
In fact, I don’t expect Tubby Smith to work miracles in Lubbock. I’ll be impressed if he gets the Red Raiders to play better than .500 ball in the rugged Big 12 by the 2016 season. But he’ll bring in good players, he’ll win a few games, and he’ll lend an invincible aura of even-handed, avuncular fairness to the proceedings. He’ll rehabilitate the Texas Tech name and prepare it to take the next step under an up-and-coming younger man; perhaps current Tech assistant coach Pooh Williamson, who played under Smith at Tulsa. Maybe someone else.
For now, however, Smith is the Texas Tech program’s physical therapist: He’ll supervise those first slow steps toward recovery, and make sure his team doesn’t face-plant. Soon, he’ll have the program walking and even running.
Tubby Smith represents a positive view of the near future in Lubbock. He can, and likely will, have the Red Raiders back in the Big Dance some day, and that’s a pretty good carrot for a program that hasn’t been there since 2007.
If he wears a suit and smiles like your granddad and nobody says anything interesting about him along the way, is that really such a bad thing?
All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.
In The Matrix, Neo might have been The One, but he needed Morpheus, Trinity and Tank to show him the way and watch his back while he learned Kung Fu.
Andrew Wiggins will have that same luxury at Kansas this year. Bill Self will make sure his star takes the crimson and blue pill so he can walk the fine line between artistry and hard work. Wiggins’ teammates will help carry the load. It’s the only way the Jayhawks can lock down yet another Big 12 title, and possibly another trip to the Final Four.
The team concept is vital. It’s a lesson other Big 12 teams have learned the hard way in recent seasons. Remember Michael Beasley at K-State? His single season was a marvel of individual effort, but Kansas won the 2008 league (and national) title in spite of Beasley’s 28 double-doubles. One year prior, Kevin Durant was transcendent at Texas, winning national player of the year honors, but even the Durantula couldn’t wrest the Big 12 trophy from Bill Self’s hands all by his lonesome.
So what’s to keep the same fate from befalling Andrew Wiggins? The Canadian wunderkind has the inside track on the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick and the Naismith Award, and most pundits favor him to be one of the game’s all-time greats over the next two decades. That’s a lot of expectation on one guy.
Here’s the thing – Kansas doesn’t do the one man show. Take a look at the talent arrayed around Wiggins, and you’ll see the makings of a national title contender, though maybe not one as flashy as the one John Calipari has built at Kentucky. Junior Naadir Tharpe will become the primary ballhandler, and he’ll share the backcourt with Wayne Selden, a freshman who would be the team’s most notable player if not for a certain Canadian.
In the frontcourt, Self has another newbie in Joel Embiid, an experienced transfer in Memphis’ Tarik Black, and the hard-won wisdom of sophomore Perry Ellis, who learned patience in his own unpredictable freshman campaign.
“I had a lot of ups and downs,” Ellis told NBCSports.com via phone. “I realized I still had a lot to learn about the game. Just by becoming more mentally tough and learning little aspects of the game that coach was teaching.”
Bill Self has never asked one player to carry his squad. His dalliances with one-and-done talent in the past have driven home the point: no one man, no matter how talented, can do the whole job. Xavier Henry needed his teammates to pick up the slack while he learned how to be aggressive and hit the mid-range jumper. Josh Selby had to sit out nine games of his freshman season, and never really became a star as he was expected to. Ben McLemore was Self’s biggest success to date, but last season was hardly a solo performance by the eventual lottery pick.
Wiggins is a different sort of superstar – he can, and likely will, take over games on his own – but he’ll have the support system he needs if things don’t go as planned. Ellis, a blue-chip recruit in his own right, knows that those days will come. He’ll have advice for Wiggins, Selden and especially freshman big man Embiid when things get tough.
“He’ll get down sometimes,” Ellis said. “I went through that too my freshman year. I can relate to him on that. Jeff (Withey) and them would take me under their wing when I wasn’t doing well or got down on myself. That’s what I’m really trying to help them with. When things aren’t going well, just keep competing.”
Wiggins is hard to nail down. He’s the sort of player who can thrive anywhere on the court. He’ll explode eyeballs if his teammates can do the little things that create space for a superstar – setting picks, knocking down zone-busting shots, sealing off defenders in the paint – and that’s the kind of thing Bill Self teams excel at. Ellis pointed out that some of the bench players who will see their time dwindle as the stars take the court will have vital roles to play.
“Andrew White and Brannen Green are good shooters. In practice, we’ve been meshing real well, with guys knocking in shots, or I can get it in the post and kick it back out. I think that will be great for us.”
If you look at Kansas teams of the past, there’s always talent. That’s a given. But Bill Self’s Final Four teams, including his national title winners of 2008, haven’t yet produced a bona fide NBA superstar. With a consensus stud on the roster this season, it’ll be up to the head coach to make sure his supporting cast is never standing and watching as Wiggins defies gravity. Ellis, who struggled to learn his role as McLemore lit up the scoreboard, knows that hard work pays off, even if you’re not the star every night.
“The game started really slowing down for me,” Ellis said. “I realized that my freshman season. It’s a long season but I turned it around at the end.”
Self’s troops, though young, should be primed to hear that wisdom. Even the younger players on the team ooze maturity. Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News – the polar opposite of an attention-hungry internet troll – lobbed a stunning compliment at one of the other freshmen earlier this season.
Wayne Selden does not relent. I’ll say this as directly as possible: Selden is the hardest-practicing freshman I’ve encountered in more than a quarter-century on the college basketball beat.
Wiggins’s athleticism will permit him to do some things college opponents can’t prevent. But those same young men simply won’t want to get in Selden’s way.
Kansas will certainly never turn up its nose at the uber-talented. But a decade’s worth of league titles won over an opponent’s superstar or two ought to prove that Bill Self’s Jayhawks will always win with more than one man, even when that man is the amazing Andrew Wiggins.
All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.
To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.
Every season, the Big 12 story line starts out as “who can dethrone Kansas?” Usually, hope comes from one of two sources: either KU graduates a stalwart class, leaving a seemingly unbridgeable experience gap, or another program in the league assembles a quality group that seems primed for the league title. This season, both happened, as the Jayhawks lost their entire starting lineup, headlined by Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey. Then Marcus Smart elected to stay in Stillwater, making Oklahoma State into the best team in the league. So what does Bill Self do? He goes out and signs Andrew Wiggins, a polite, mind-bendingly athletic Canadian who’s a lock to go No. 1 in the next NBA draft; a guy who’s being casually mentioned in the same breath with Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
That sets us up for a fantastic season. Even the Big 12 media don’t see a clear favorite. Kansas and Oklahoma State each garnered 77 overall votes in the annual preseason poll, and each landed five first-place votes. It’s a tie that can only be broken on the court.
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:
1. Kentucky has the most NBA prospects, Kansas has The One: Bill Self has never embraced the one-and-done phenomenon to the degree that John Calipari has, but he seems to be learning how to pick his spots. This is a young, talented Kansas team that may take a little time to develop, but the presence of Andrew Wiggins in Lawrence will be, quite literally, a game changer.
2. Oklahoma State can put an end to KU’s dominance: Marcus Smart said it best, regarding Andrew Wiggins: “I’m not saying he can’t do it, but he hasn’t done it yet.” Smart has done it, averaging 15.4 points, 5.8 boards, 4.2 assists and 3.0 steals for a 24-win team last year. With an experienced high-quality lineup around him – LeBryan Nash, Phil Forte, Markel Brown et al – Smart has the tools to lead the Cowboys to the pinnacle of the league and beyond.
3. Baylor’s got the inside track: Much of the excitement surrounding KU and OSU is centered on wing players. In Waco, it’s the muscle inside that will bring the pain. The Bears earned praise as our No. 4 frontcourt earlier this preseason, which makes them a force to be reckoned with, not only in the Big 12, but nationally.
4. Tubby’s in Lubb(ock): Texas Tech has had a rough… existence. Basketball-wise, the past decade has brought the program into the national eye, often for the wrong reasons. Bobby Knight resurrected his career in Lubbock, then handed things over to his son for a short-lived head coaching debut. Billy Gillispie took his second chance and drove his career and the program all the way off the rails. Now the reins have been handed to the even-keeled, title-toting Tubby Smith. He’s the right guy to keep things chill in Lubbock, but can he bring the noise when it’s needed?
5. Rick Barnes in danger of becoming a Texas Ex: Let me state this in no uncertain terms: Longhorn basketball was an afterthought before Barnes took over. A 2003 Final Four appearance turned that around, and Kevin Durant’s one year in Austin made Texas a high-profile destination program for some of the nation’s top one-and-done talent in recent seasons. Somehow, all that talent is resulting in diminishing returns; the Longhorns missed the tournament entirely last season, and haven’t made the second weekend of the Big Dance since 2008. Nowhere else to lay that but on Barnes’ doorstep.
PRESEASON BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State)
Andrew Wiggins may have the last laugh, but Smart is just so well positioned to make the most of his talent. He exhibited genius last season, he’s surrounded by experienced talent in Stillwater and he’ll be the guy with the ball in his hands. I’ll hand him this honor by the slimmest of margins, with full confidence that he’ll run with it.
THE REST OF THE BIG 12 FIRST TEAM:
G/F Andrew Wiggins (Kansas): Will Wiggins make me look foolish for making him POY 1b? I like his chances. Bill Self does a great job of integrating talent into a team concept, but Wiggins will stand out in a big way.
C Isaiah Austin (Baylor): Austin tallied eleven double-doubles last season, and he’s in line to improve on those numbers. With a forest of big men to share the load, and Brady Heslip creating space with his long-range jumper, I like Ike to destroy some rims this season.
F Melvin Ejim (Iowa State): Ejim is almost a prototype of what Fred Hoiberg is doing in Ames. Standing just 6-foot-6, Ejim tallied fifteen double-doubles last season while also stretching the floor with his shooting touch. Ejim gives the Cyclones a puncher’s chance every night out in the Big 12.
FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:
G Shane Southwell (Kansas State)
F Corey Jefferson (Baylor)
F Perry Ellis (Kansas)
G/F LeBryan Nash (Oklahoma State)
C Joel Embiid (Kansas)
BREAKOUT STAR: Wayne Selden (Kansas)
In any other season, Selden would be the toast of Lawrence, Kansas. The presence of Wiggins means this likely lottery pick is actually being overlooked to some degree. Physical and quick, Selden can be the complete package for Bill Self, and his playmaking ability, level head and monster work ethic should make the freshman a factor for the Jayhawks sooner rather than later.
COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Rick Barnes (Texas)
As laid out earlier in this article, Barnes – the longest-tenured coach in the Big 12 by a wide margin – helped make Texas hoops into a household name. He’s rested on his laurels long enough, however. It’s Big Dance or Bust for Barnes this season.
ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …: Can Kansas and Oklahoma State both get No. 1 seeds?
I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: OSU and Kansas will definitely meet twice, and probably three times this season. This is proof that the Universe is not cold and aloof.
FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:
November 12: Kansas vs. Duke (in Chicago)
December 6: Baylor vs. Kentucky (in Arlington, TX)
December 10: Kansas at Florida
December 14: Kansas at New Mexico
December 21: Oklahoma St. vs. Colorado (in Las Vegas)
1. Kansas: Until the streak is finally broken, this spot is reserved for the Jayhawks.
2. Oklahoma State: Really more of a co-number-one, but Travis Ford has to pull all the right strings to unseat Kansas.
3. Baylor: Overshadowed, but definitely primed to pull some upsets.
4. Iowa State: The Mayor has done an amazing job with transfers and undersized forwards. We don’t see that changing much this season.
5. Oklahoma: Lon Kruger is patiently rebuilding the Sooners, and he’ll likely notch a couple of upsets this season.
6. Kansas State: Graduation hurt this squad, but the backcourt of Spradling and Southwell gives the Wildcats a fighting chance.
7. West Virginia: Huggy Bear’s troops need to make a concerted effort to stay out of the doghouse and on the court this season.
8. Texas: What more can we say? It’s a make-or-break season in Austin.
9. TCU: The Horned Frogs could again play spoiler this year, but they’re hoping for more.
10. Texas Tech: Even Tubby Smith will need some time to rebuild this program in total disarray.