NCAA tournament: Gophers' Smith, UCLA's Howland feeling pressure
AUSTIN, Texas — When Minnesota and UCLA meet Friday in the NCAA tournament, the winning coach just might put the loser out of his job.
Call it a Texas showdown that could be the ultimate one-and-done.
UCLA’s Ben Howland and Minnesota’s Tubby Smith are facing intense speculation back home, and some nationally, that anything but a deep postseason run could cost them their jobs. Beating the other guy could help cool down their courtside seats a bit.
It might seem odd that two coaches with long resumes of success would arrive at this point, particularly considering what their teams have accomplished this season. The Bruins (25-9) won the Pac-12 regular-season title to earn the No. 6 seed in the South Regional. The Gophers (20-12) are the No. 11 seed after earning just the 12th NCAA tournament berth in school history.
Howland, who coached the Bruins to three consecutive Final Fours from 2006-08, didn’t want to talk about the speculation swirling about his future at a program he’s led for 10 years.
“I’m just here focused really on our game against Minnesota,” he said.
But a few minutes earlier, when asked about the “adversity” he and his team have faced this season, Howland said he feels lucky to have been in coaching for more than 30 years.
“Real adversity is someone out there who doesn’t have a job. Real adversity is someone who is trying to feed their kids and struggling to make it. Real adversity is having your mortgage under water,” Howland said. “There (are) so many things that are so much tougher than what we deal with in our world of athletics.”
Howland also went out of his way to praise Smith, who won a national championship with Kentucky in 1998.
“I have this great respect for Tubby Smith and all that he’s accomplished. ... He’s a Hall of Fame coach. No question about it,” Howland said.
Howland’s critics can’t say he hasn’t won at a high level or recruited well. The Bruins’ freshman sensation, Shabazz Muhammad, was one of the top recruits in the country and helped lead UCLA to its fourth conference title in eight years.
Howland’s problem is that UCLA, one of the blue blood programs in college basketball, has been in a long drought of postseason success. The Bruins missed the tournament in 2010 and 2012 and haven’t made it past the first weekend since their last Final Four appearance in 2008.
UCLA sustained a big blow to its NCAA tournament chances last week when guard Jordan Adams, who averaged 15.3 points this season, broke his right ankle in the Pac-12 tournament. Howland called Adams his team’s best all-around player.
“Everyone is saying that Minnesota is going to beat us because we have one player out,” Muhammad said. “That doesn’t really matter and we are still a really good team. We are going to prove it.”
Howland is using some of the negative energy around his program as fuel to motivate his players.
Bruins guard Larry Drew II said Howland recently posted in the locker room unflattering media clips and quotes about the team.
“He’s noticed it and he definitely wants that to motivate us. We got word that people are kind of counting us out, but we feel like we have been proving people wrong all year,” Drew said.
For Smith, the challenge is getting the Gophers to find the same form that led to a 15-1 start and earned them a reputation as a rugged, rebounding, physical team. That was before a four-game losing streak led to an 8-10 finish in Big Ten play. The Gophers beat then-No. 1 Indiana in late February but haven’t won a game since March 2.
“Our confidence was shaken by some tough losses,” Smith said. “We still have a very experienced team. ... We did enough to warrant being here.”
Smith left Kentucky in 2007 as fans there become impatient for another national championship that he couldn’t deliver. In his six seasons at Minnesota, the Gophers have won at least 20 games five times, but those haven’t included any big wins in the NCAA tournament. The Gophers also missed the tournament in 2011 and 2012.
At Kentucky, Smith led the Wildcats to the round of 16 or beyond six times. Before Kentucky, Smith also led Tulsa and Georgia to the round of 16.
Gophers fans are still waiting for at least a taste of something similar. The start of the season whetted their appetite for a breakthrough year. The end only made it taste like bitter leftovers.
On Thursday, Smith noted that he has three of Minnesota’s 12 NCAA tournament appearances in program history. He’s still trying to galvanize support for his program, he said.
“We feel good about what we’ve been doing,” Smith said. “We’re trying to grow the program. We still have a long way to go.”