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In the Zone column: Coach Smith takes the 'Goofs' out of Gophers

It was a comeback not seen in these parts in a very long time.

A Minnesota team was down by 16 points on the hardwood, during tournament time, and came back to win the game.

That team was the Univer-sity of Minnesota Golden Gophers, and it was a comeback signifying where this program is going under the best hire this state has seen in... probably ever.

The U of M pulled off a coup this past year, first firing Dan Monson and literally hitting the lottery by hiring Tubby Smith, formerly the head coach at Kentucky.

Yes, one of the best coaches in the NCAA left one of the most-recognized basketball programs in the United States and came to Minnesota.

I'm still shaking my head with amazement over that hire.

But I also found myself shaking my head in the same fashion Thursday when the Gophers rallied back from a 16-point deficit to Northwes-tern to win the opening game of the Big 10 Tournament.

Yes, it was against the lowly Wildcats -- a team on the exact opposite of the spectrum from the Kentucky Wildcats --but the win by the Gophers was a significant sign that this program could be becoming a fun and exciting one to watch in the future.

Entering the year, Smith had very little to work with. He had very little time to recruit and had to make do with the shell of a team Monson left behind.

But Smith somehow, some way pulled out an 8-10 Big 10 record and a 19-12 overall mark, which was easily more than double the victories posted in Monson's last season (in which he was fired halfway through the year).

The team won without any real threat offensively in the lane, as senior Spenser Tollackson was the U's most-experienced big man in the paint.

Tollackson plays hard, but let's face it, no Big 10 coach is game planning for a player who averages 9.8 points and four rebounds per game.

What Smith injected into this group was a defensive mentality which kept many games close.

The Gophers gave up a sixth-conference-best 1,970 points, while producing 2,155 points -- which was an impressive third in the Big 10.

The guard production from the back court was vital, with freshman Blake Hoffarber (out of Minnetonka) and sophomore Lawrence Westbrook each providing accurate shooting from the perimeter.

Senior Dan Coleman also came into his own, leading the team in scoring from his forward position with 382 points amd an average of 12.3 points per game.

Smith certainly catapulted Coleman's performance, something Monson couldn't do. Coleman also led the team in rebounding with 6.1 rpg.

Another senior benefiting from Smith's presence was guard Lawrence McKenzie, who scored a second-team high 374 points (12.1 ppg).

Smith got the maximum potential out of these seniors, since he doesn't settle for anything but that from his players.

The Gophers still lost their fair share of close contests late in the game -- i.e., vs. Indiana (65-60), at Michigan State (65-59) and at Illinois (67-58).

But to go back to what Smith is getting out of this team, it's really quite amazing. He squeezed every last bit of effort out these players, and it paid off in the first round of the Big 10 Tournament.

The Gophers played No. 3 seeded Indiana Friday night (after this edition went to press), but really, it doesn't matter how the U of M did in the quarterfinals.

If Smith stays on long-term with the Gophers, nothing but good things will happen -- with a little patience from the Maroon and Gold fans, that is.

It will take at least three years to see the full effect of Smith's recruiting.

Next year, the Gophers may even struggle a bit, with the transition in full effect. The team loses Coleman, Tollackson and McKenzie -- all big contributors to this year's turnaround.

But fans will also be seeing some of Smith's recruiting success, with Ralph Sampson III coming in as a freshman.

Sampson is the son of Ralph Samson II, the University of Virginia star from the 1980s. He is tall and athletic.

His presence in the middle alone will improve the defense and will compliment the back court of Hoffarber (a three-point specialist with a 43 percent average) and Westbrook.

The record may slip a little next season, but that should cause no worries, with Smith's recruits starting to fill the majority of the roster by year three of his tenure.

There would have been no way in Hades that Sampson would have committed to the U of M if Smith not have been coaching there.

The admiration Smith garners from around the nation will be key to his recruiting top basketball talent from around the 50 states. Top 10 recruiting classes will become a norm, not a rarity.

There will be no boundaries, much like it has been for years for Gopher basketball.

Smith is thought of as one of the top coaches -- and one of the most-respected and honorable coaches -- in the nation.

He doesn't have to feel the unbearable pressure to win that he faced in Kentucky, especially if he breeds half the success he had there in The Barn -- he will be a hero.

And fans and the U of M administration (who need to be credited for giving up the big bucks to sign Smith) don't have to worry about any scandals under Smith -- his well-deserved honor is held in high regard by many, and Smith has proven it throughout his coaching career.

Of all the sports coaching hires in all of Minnesota sports -- including college and professional -- Smith's hire by the Gophers is second to none.