Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Smith Era at Kentucky, RIP

In 1997, Rick Pitino left the Kentucky program that he had resurrected after Eddie Sutton and his minions had defenestrated the place. Pitino took over a program suffering from a major scandal and two years of forthcoming probation and transformed it into one of the top programs of the '90s: four Final Four appearances (only Duke and UNC had more with 5 each), two national titles (tied with Duke) and the never-quit valiance that the nation saw when an undermanned Kentucky team came within a miracle of preventing Duke's repeat in 1992.

Tubby Smith replaced Pitino for the 1997-98 season and did the unexpected -- won a national title. Nine years later, Smith has told his players that he will become the coach at Minnesota next year.

The fact that the players on Smith's first team were Pitino's meant little -- in the two years since its 1996 title, Kentucky had lost NBA first-round draftees Walter McCarty, Tony Delk, Antoine Walker and Ron Mercer. The '98 team did not have completely "bare" cupboards -- it was led by Jeff Sheppard, Nazr Mohammed, Scott Padgett and Wayne Turner; all of them were serviceable players, but there was not an all-American in that bunch. Under Smith, they were national champions. Even Pitino would have had difficulty coming close to that mark.

"Not an all-American in the bunch" could have been the codephrase for Smith's recruiting. Smith liked to coach, not recruit, not gladhand the boosters, not kiss-up to the faithful. In Kentucky, UK hoops is a religion. After all, there's no other significant pasttime in the whole blasted state except bourbon production and horse racing. Louisville doesn't count: it's like Duke in the state of North Carolina -- a regional team, not the state's flagship program. So the semi-reclusive Smith had to be the face of the program that has the permanent attention of the whole state. Not good for him.

Worse yet, Kentucky is nothing without its fans -- rabid, devoted, loyal, and sometimes hot (two words: Judd, Ashley). Without that fan base, what Queens playground kid would go to a small town like Lexington? Smith's recent run enervated the fan base as UK failed to reach the Sweet 16 in consecutive years, UK completely whiffed on top recruit Chris Lofton and UK's recruiting sank to low Pac-10 levels recently. Indeed, but for Smith's coaching, the team would not have reached the Final Eight in 2003 or 2005. The fact that Smith's overachievers obtained a #1 seed in 2004 was an accomplishment in itself -- that team simply lacked ability. Smith's personality just did not mesh with the fans' fanaticism, despite his obvious coaching ability.

What Minnesota gets is a coach who can build mid-level players into a winning unit at a major conference, something that Dan Monson could not do (a rather ignominious fall for the coach who originally put Gonzaga on the map). So the Golden Gophers now have a coach who can win, and will run a clean program, in contrast to Clem Haskins. Unfortunately, Minnesota still will lack something: a coach who can win, run a clean program, and graduate his players.

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