Dienhart: 'It's Shaka Smart or bust'

Tubby Smith did many good things while head coach at Minnesota. He won some big games, advanced the program to three NCAA tourneys and two NITs in six years on the job. But, the school decided today that all of that wasn’t enough. Smith was fired. Now what for the Golden Gophers, who join Northwestern as Big Ten schools in search of a coach?

Many feel Smith wasn’t given enough time, that he was often in a tough spot because of injuries, poor facilities or defections. Call them excuses or true hurdles to progress—it doesn’t matter. Minnesota A.D. Norwood Teague is opting to turn the page even though Smith received a contract extension through 2016-17 last July and has a buyout of $2.5 million.

Smith’s teams never seemed to improve. Can Minnesota do better? Sure. But, a more vital question: Can Minnesota afford not to try to do better? Why settle for mediocrity? Nothing great ever has happened without some risk. And, no doubt, there is lots of risk when you change coaches.

[RELATED: Twitter reaction to Smith firing ]

There was no sense Smith was on the precipice of a breakout. At some point, a school has to sell hope, promise, a future—and tickets. Now, all eyes will shift to VCU coach Shaka Smart, who was hired by Teague at VCU. Actually, it’s Shaka Smart or bust.

If Teague can land Smart, he’ll be hailed a genius and savior, perhaps setting the program up for great success. If Teague can’t bag Smart–who has been pursued by many in recent years, including by Illinois after it fired Bruce Weber—it will be viewed as a disappointment by some.

Smart, 35, became a man in demand after leading VCU to the 2011 Final Four. He is 111-36 in four years on the job with three NCAA bids.

Another popular name is Flip Saunders, a former Gopher who is currently an NBA analyst for ESPN. He also has been an NBA head coach with the Timberwolves, Pistons and Wizards. But does Minnesota really wanna hire a 58-year-old coach after firing the 61-year-old Smith?

Stay tuned.

Whoever is the next Minnesota coach will have his work cut out for him. Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams are gone, depleting the front line. Also gone are fellow seniors Andre Ingram and Julian Welch. Next year’s squad can build around the guard duo of Andre and Austin Hollins.

Even with that talent, Smith never could get the program over the hump upon being hired by ex-A.D. Joel Maturi in 2007 from Kentucky, where he had won a national championship in 1997-98. Smith replaced Dan Monson, who had a disappointing tenure cleaning up the Clem Haskins mess. Well, Smith’s six-year run in Minneapolis wasn’t much better.

Smith compiled a 124-81 mark for the Gophers, going 46-62 in the Big Ten. He never had a winning record in conference play, going 9-9 twice—the last time being 2009-10. The past three seasons, Smith went 20-34 in the Big Ten. But perhaps worst of all: Smith went 1-3 in three NCAA tourney appearances.

This season began with a glow of great possibilities for a veteran team that was coming off a run to the NIT title game. The Golden Gophers were 15-1 overall, 3-0 in the Big Ten and ranked No. 8 when they played at Indiana on Jan. 12. Alas, Minnesota lost, 88-81. And, the season went south from there. After that defeat, the Gophers went 6-11 the rest of the season en route to a 21-13 finish.

Minnesota still had an NCAA-quality resume, earning a No. 11 seed. Entering the Big Dance, many speculated Smith needed to win at least one game to keep his job—and perhaps two. Or else.

Smith led the Gophers to a victory over a depleted and over-seeded No. 6 UCLA team on Friday. UCLA subsequently fired coach Ben Howland. But Minnesota’s season ended on Sunday with a 78-64 loss to Florida in the NCAA third round. And, like Howland, Smith was canned.

Now, the ball is in Teague’s court. And, he can’t miss this shot.

***

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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