|After quiet summer, Tubby Smith takes over in Minnesota|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 12 October 2007 17:20|
Those demanding Wildcat fans and boosters essentially ran him out of Lexington and into the adoring arms of the Golden Gopher faithful who are desperate for any sign of hope.
Smith received a hero's welcome at The Barn in Minneapolis when he was hired. And just like that, he seemed to vanish.
He kept a low profile all summer, concentrating heavily on recruiting out of state to help bolster a roster that lacks the athleticism, shooting touch and defensive intensity that were hallmarks of his Kentucky teams.
``I haven't had time to spend a lot of time with you guys,'' Smith told a group of reporters on Friday night before ``Tubby's Tipoff,'' Minnesota's answer to Midnight Madness. ``I've got a job to do. My job is to win basketball games and recruit top student athletes and we feel like we're off to a good start there.''
On Friday night, low profile went out the window.
Smith led his Gophers onto the court in front of the Minnesota fans for the first time, receiving thunderous applause from a crowd that fully expects him to be the savior of a once-proud program that has fallen on hard times.
He isn't making any bold predictions or big promises, but Smith has been hard at work trying to turn a team that went 9-22 last season into a winner.
``I think he wanted to just kind of keep it on the low profile because so far we're the team that won nine games last year,'' senior center Spencer Tollackson said. ``We haven't proven anything yet.
``There's nothing really to brag about or talk about. We're working hard and were definitely going to win this year and turn things around.''
Smith certainly has his work cut out for him. The Gophers are coming off a disastrous year that featured the firing of coach Dan Monson just seven games into the season. Interim coach Jim Molinari spent the rest of the year leading an overmatched team to the most losses in the school's 111-year history.
Through it all, Williams Arena devolved from one of the most imposing venues in the Big Ten to a mostly empty, lifeless building.
Once one of the hottest tickets in town, scalpers couldn't give tickets away.
Then came Tubby.
``Since the day they announced Coach Smith was the coach, there's been a lot more energy,'' senior Lawrence McKenzie said. ``Just from him being here, everybody's excited. Just from him being here, they feel like he can bring a lot more and I feel the same way.''
But while more than 24,000 fans packed Rupp Arena for Kentucky's Midnight Madness on Friday night, only a few thousand turned out for Tubby's Tipoff.
Still, Smith did his best to ramp up the fans, shaking hands and smiling often while he took the microphone and narrated the night's festivities, which included a 3-point contest, a dunk contest and a scrimmage.
``They want to feed off the energy I have and I'm going to feed off them,'' Smith said of the fans. ``It's a two-way street. We're excited about everyone being on board. I'm excited about being here.''
It's clear he is still getting to know his new team.
Early in the night, Smith playfully asked McKenzie, listed generously in the media guide as 6-foot-2, if he could dunk.
McKenzie easily threw down a reverse jam, and Smith hollered, ``I didn't know he could do that!''
Dressed in a gray jumpsuit with the maroon and gold Gopher emblem on the chest, Smith contemplated wearing a color other than Wildcat blue for the first time in 11 seasons.
``It'll be a real adjustment,'' Smith said with a chuckle. ``Changes are inevitable. Whenever you make a change, you should be changing to improve and better yourself. I feel like I'm expanding my horizons, getting to meet more people.
``The maroon and gold are beautiful. It's suits me well. I feel like I look pretty good in it.''