Sandell: Florida drops Smith, Gophers into an offseason of uncertainty
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AUSTIN, Texas - Tubby Smith could do nothing more than stand and watch, hands in the pockets of his suit, shaking his head ever so slightly.
Florida was in the final minutes of completing a sound 78-64 defeat of Smith's No. 11 seed Gophers Sunday at the Frank Erwin Center, knocking Minnesota out of the NCAA tournament.
A miserable first half in which Florida rocketed to a 48-27 halftime lead was countered by an energetic comeback, but ultimately the Gophers could not overcome the entire deficit.
Smith's sixth season at the helm of the "U" basketball program was brought to an unsatisfying end. The Gophers' first NCAA victory under Smith - a dominating 20-point win against UCLA on Friday -- could not completely block out the team's 12 losses in its last 18 games.
On Sunday, the Gophers were shrouded in inconsistency, which also served as a concise summarization of the their season as a whole. Promise and a share of thrilling moments in the end could not evenly translate to prolonged success when it came down to crucial junctures. They had come close, but the damage was already too severe to fully patch up.
With a fierce defense that wreaked havoc early and an 8-of-18 3-point shooting mark, the third-seeded Gators proved they were simply on a level above the Gophers. Florida guard Mike Rosario terrorized the lagging "U" defense en route to a team-high 25 points, including six 3-pointers.
Briefly at the start of the first half, the Gophers appeared primed to combat Florida, trading baskets until it was tied at 10-10 five minutes into the game. But the Gophers' succumbed spectacularly to the Gators' hammering defensively and hot-shooting from outside.
Florida outscored the Gophers 38-17 to finish the half, having rendered forwards Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams into a state of ineffectiveness and dominated the offensive and defensive glass for a 16-8 halftime advantage.
"We had to be on our game and we had a stretch there that we gave them way too many open looks," junior guard Austin Hollins said. "For a team like Florida, they're going to knock down shots and make us pay. It's something that we tried to fix in the second half and they didn't get as many, but whenever we broke down they took advantage of it."
But to the Gophers' credit, they did not check out, even when a bitter conclusion seemed to almost be inevitable.
Mixing inside and outside looks with renewed ball movement, the Gophers stormed to within seven points on 19-5 run with more than 12 minutes left. Guard Andre Hollins, who had his second straight 20-plus points game (24), had drained a trio of energizing 3-pointers in a two-minute stretch.
"First half we didn't play good defense and that affected our offense. We were stagnant," Hollins said. "Second half, we had to pick things up. In the locker room we were saying it was nothing new. We came back from (23-point deficit at) Indiana. We have been down big before and come back."
But when the momentum-killing errors and periods of stagnate play returned, Florida was there to put the Gophers away for good. Andre Hollins was called for his fourth foul with just under 10 minutes to go, landed the leader of the comeback charge to the bench for the next five minutes.
In quick fashion, Florida's lead swelled back to above 15 points, which left Smith to just stare as the final moments of his team's season trudged to a close.
"I don't know what it is," Smith said, trying to come up with an explanation for his team's chronic slow starts. "We had a bunch of defensive breakdowns and good teams are going to burn you ... We just had a lot of breakdowns off the dribble ... But I don't know what it is. Maybe we're just a slow starting team for the most part."
The Gophers' torrent season is over.
Now the waiting for the decision that has being hanging over the program for the last two months begins. Smith's fate with the Gophers' is in athletic director Norwood Teague's control.
Teague must choose whether to keep his support behind Smith, who is under contract through the 2016-17 season, or pay a $2.5 million buyout to sever ties with the embattled 61-year-old coach and begin a search for a new head man.
Teague was not in Austin for the Gophers' tournament exit, having headed back to Minneapolis on Saturday to watch university's women's hockey team win its second consecutive national title. But associate athletic Mike Ellis, who oversees basketball operations and will be a key voice in determining Smith's future, was seen with the team throughout the weekend.
When asked if has been given any indication that his job is in jeopardy, Smith replied bluntly "No."
There is little doubting that parting with Smith has been brought into Teague's conversation with his staff. But what direction Teague takes is uncertain.
The Gophers' NCAA tournament appearance can't be dismissed as it was their first in three years and saw them to advance out of the Round of 64 for the first time since 1997. But that does not erase the fact the Gophers faltered for the third straight in year in Big Ten play, watching a 15-1 start to the regular end fade into a tie for seventh place in the conference with a 8-10 record. In six seasons, Smith holds a 124-81 overall record and 60.4% win percentage (124-80), with a 46-62 mark in the Big Ten.
In the aftermath of their loss to players, the "U" players were direct in dismissing any questions about the team's perceived instability.
"We're not going to go into the offseason with any uncertainty," Austin Hollins said. "At this point, everything is going to be the same, minus the seniors next year."
Andre Hollins agreed.
"I predict Coach Smith will be back," Hollins said. "I guess I'm not caught up in the (speculation). I have to work my tail off now so we can go farther in the tournament next year."
But all is not settled for the Gophers. Teague who is in his first year on the job, has reiterated that he would wait to publicly evaluate the team's season and future until the season was concluded. The moment to break that silence has come. Smith's job security will hang over the program until Teague unveils his intentions.