The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain
— Robert Burns, 1785
Some 228 years later, basketball coach Tubby Smith is all too familiar with the time-honored saying. He has repeatedly set the trap at Minnesota, only to see it go awry. If it isn’t grades, it’s an injury or a suspension or a dismissal or a harrowingly close loss.
Like when Al Nolen, his fleet point guard, went ineligible midway through the 2009-10 season and returned the next year only to be struck down by a foot injury just as Devoe Joseph, arguably the Gophers’ best player, was suspended and transferred to Oregon (the Ducks’ top scorer at 16.7 last year).
Or last season, when knee-troubled rebounder Trevor Mbakwe was limited to seven early starts, and senior center Ralph Sampson missed 10 games and was ineffective in others.
Looking back, there was also that delicious moment in time when Smith imagined having Mbakwe and Royce White on the Williams Arena court at the same time. Two powerhouse behemoths, healthy and dominating the lane.
But that’s another story. Nutshelling, White enrolled after earning Minnesota’s top prep honors, but the anxiety disorder that caused him to transfer in high school reared its ugly head, just as it is now in his pending court battle with the Houston Rockets. Two incidents in 2009 — theft and disorderly conduct at the Mall of America, and later an accusation of laptop theft — led White to Iowa State, where he topped last season’s 23-11 team in points, rebounds, steals, blocks and assists.
Better days ahead
Smith isn’t looking back. Despite 6-12 Big Ten finishes the last two years, he has a refreshed contract that carries through 2016-17 and an onrushing 14-1 team ranked in the Top 10 in both major polls.
“We are healthy ... that was the issue last year,” he said after Sunday’s 52-point second half that felled Northwestern 69-51.
Citing the case of Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, whose triceps injury impacted Saturday’s playoff loss to Green Bay, Smith philosophized:
“It is deflating when all the pieces aren’t there. It’s human nature. People perform better when their disposition is positive. It’s a happier staff and squad when everyone is healthy and all the pieces are in place. That’s where we are right now. We’ve won 10 straight, and we have a good feeling.”
That’s what Illinois faces tonight at the Assembly Hall. A steamroller. Anything less than a repeat of Saturday’s exceptional performance against Ohio State (74-55) won’t be sufficient. These Gophers have displayed more weapons than Ohio State. They’ve defeated Memphis, Stanford, Florida State, USC and Michigan State.
“Percentagewise, Minnesota is the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the country,” UI coach John Groce said. “And they have an ability to create turnovers which lead to easy baskets.
“We had one of our most complete games against Ohio State. We’d like to bottle that secret formula, but each game is different.”
The burly Mbakwe, who’ll be 24 in two weeks, is still around ... five-plus years after originally enrolling at Marquette and later attending Miami Dade.
It’s been a tough pull from last year’s surgery, and Smith was cautious earlier in bringing him off the bench. But Mbakwe is picking up steam again, reaching double figures in rebounds six times, with a high of 18 against North Dakota State on Dec. 11.
Smith has juggled his key players, finding freakish leaper Rodney Williams more at home at power forward — “He’s standing the test of time,” said Smith — and converting jump shooter Andre Hollins to point guard.
“Andre began to come along as a point guard at the end of his freshman season last year, and he has learned how that fits into his game.”
Hollins erupted for 41 points in an 84-75 defeat of Memphis and is not to be confused with Austin Hollins, his unrelated teammate who bagged five treys in a 31/2-minute stretch against Northwestern on Sunday.
Tonight will provide more insight as to the value of the home court. The Big Ten’s six ranked teams are 57-1 at home this season, the lone loss by Ohio State to Kansas, 74-66, on Dec. 22. Those who don’t win six or seven of their nine home games are doomed for the Big Ten’s second division.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.