- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2009

MINNEAPOLIS | Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi sat in his customary Williams Arena seat Sunday with the smile only satisfaction can bring.

Tubby Smith’s Golden Gophers were steamrolling Penn State with their most complete and balanced performance of the season, and there was nary a seat to be had in the roaring Barn.

“I said, ‘Boy things have changed,’” Maturi said. “Obviously, Tubby was the reason.”

Less than 21 months have passed since Maturi lured Smith away from dissatisfied powerhouse Kentucky to a program that was laid ruin by a massive academic fraud scandal and seven dour seasons under coach Dan Monson.

One of the brightest stars in the constellation of power coaches, Smith had made a career of quickly turning around programs at Tulsa and Georgia before leading Kentucky to a national title and five SEC championships in 10 seasons.

That Smith appears to be a success again should come as no surprise. But for it to happen this fast at a program that lost a school-record 22 games the year before he arrived?

“I don’t think anybody expected that,” Maturi said.

After wins at Iowa and home against Penn State last week, the Gophers (15-1, 3-1 Big Ten) rose to No. 18 on Monday in the Associated Press Top 25 and are off to their best start since 1976-77.

In a little more than a season and a half, Smith already has managed to brand that Tubby Trademark on this team.

All players take a serious approach to defense. Shots are meant to be blocked. Passes are made to be intercepted. Ball-handlers are hounded until they can’t take it anymore.

“If you can’t play defense, Coach Smith won’t play you,” junior college transfer Paul Carter said.

The message has clearly hit home with this group. There are 11 - 11! - players who play at least 13.6 minutes a game.

That means that egos and selfishness have been cast out into the frigid Minnesota winter to freeze and shatter. And that’s a lot more difficult than it sounds when you’re dealing with young men, most of whom have been the stars of the show on the court for as long as they can remember.

“Absolutely,” Smith said. “Because they’re used to playing as many minutes as they want… in high school and junior college. It’s just a tough adjustment. When they do do that and you have that type of balance, it makes you pretty effective and a hard team to beat.”

Carter admitted that it took him a while to get acclimated to the fluctuating playing time after coming in from Missouri State-West Plains.

“We were the main options, so the ball was going through us,” Carter said. “It was one-on-one situations, and that’s how we’re used to playing. In this offense, you’re coming off screens, you’re curling, you’re popping off pick-and-rolls, so that was the only challenge for us.”

Lawrence Westbrook leads the team with a modest 12.8 points a game, but it’s been a different Gophers player coming through nearly every night.

“They know that we trust the system. If they just move the ball and play the right way, it really doesn’t matter to me who is shooting it. It’s the team that wins,” Smith said. “I usually tell guys, you actually just had the ball in your hand, and it just so happened that it went through the hoop. But guess what? We all get credit for it because you couldn’t play by yourself.

“I think we’re starting to get that mentality and that attitude.”

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