Williams arena, Tubby were rocking Friday night

The Smith era officially started at Maroon and Gold madness at the Barn.

Zach Eisendrath

Minnesota men’s basketball fans, its official: The Tubby Smith Era has arrived.

After a four-year absence from campus, Midnight Madness officially returned to Minnesota on Friday night when Smith, his new coaching staff and players took the court at Williams Arena to kick off the 2007-08 season.

“This time of year is always exciting,” Smith said minutes before the event tipped. “You can feel it, you can smell basketball. You can feel the energy this time of year.”

The fan-friendly event, hyped as “Tubby’s Tip-Off,” featured a three-point contest, a slam dunk contest and an intrasquad scrimmage.

It also featured a special video message from ESPN commentator Dick Vitale, who sent fans into a frenzy by saying that with Smith, the Gophers “Will be awesome baby, with a capital A.”

All eyes on Tubby

The spotlight was clearly on the Gophers first-year coach throughout the night.

As Smith made his entrance onto the court to start the event, the few thousand fans that filled the lower bowl of ‘The Barn’ stood in unison and chanted “Tubby, Tubby, Tubby.”

From there, Smith decided to give the Gopher faithful his best James Brown impression. It was not quite as impressive as Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan’s rendition of Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” earlier Friday night in Madison, but the 56-year-old Smith showed he too has rhythm, twisting and shrugging about at midcourt.

Smith then proceeded to walk around Williams Arena, shaking hands with students, adults, children and even media members.

Many fans came to the event because they believe Smith can resurrect a program that went a school worst 9-22 last season.

Junior Brice Lehner came to show his support for Smith. The journalism major said he doesn’t expect the Gophers to make it to the NCAA tournament right away after going 3-13 in the Big Ten last season, but he expects them to “at least be competitive” this year with Smith on the sideline.

Sophomore Jake Hendricks said when he first heard the Gophers landed Smith he was “ecstatic” but at the same time, “surprised (the Gophers) pulled it off.”

Hendricks said he sees Smith every once in a while as he passes Williams Arena on his way to class, but decided to come to “Tubby’s Tip-Off” to see what Smith is like on the court.

Hendericks got his wish, and saw the new coach’s dance moves as well.

Contests

Senior guard Lawrence McKenzie, who was noticeably jacked up for the event, won both the three-point and slam dunk contests.

McKenzie hit 16 three-pointers to knock off teammates Dan Coleman and Ryan Saunders to be crowned three-point champion.

In the dunk contest, McKenzie took a bounce pass from teammate Kevin Payton and completed a windmill dunk to win his second event of the night.

Unofficially, senior center Spencer Tollackson won the contest by receiving the biggest ovation for his attempt. On his first try, Tollackson threw the ball off the shot clock above the rim, caught the ball and threw it down with authority to send fans into a craze.

Scrimmage

It was hard to make much of the Gophers’ sloppy intrasquad scrimmage, but one thing was for sure, players were playing with effort on both ends of the court.

The Gold team, led by Tollackson, defeated the Maroon team, headed by senior power forward Dan Coleman, 22-20. Tollackson looked in midseason form from the beginning, scoring the first six points for the Gold team with an array of post moves, and finished with 10. Coleman had six points for the maroon squad.

Smith said earlier in the night that he hoped to see an abundance of enthusiasm out of his players during the first few weeks of team practice. While ball handling and passing still need plenty of work, it appears Minnesota is on the right track in terms of effort. All players that participated in the 20-minute scrimmage played aggressively during their scrimmage, battling on each possession.

While giving full effort during a practice shouldn’t be earth-shattering information, it should be noted that other schools across the country used their first practice as more of an AND1 mix-tape audition, whereas the Gophers appeared to be all business during their five-on-five play.

Noteworthy

Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Al Jefferson, who came over from Boston in the Kevin Garnett trade, and guard Rashad McCants were in attendance.

Smith had the best dance moves, but Tollackson, who said he had been waiting for this weekend to arrive since the Gophers lost to Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten tournament in Chicago last March, might have had the best entrance.

Each Minnesota player, starting with point guard Al Nolen and ending with Tollackson, was individually introduced to the crowd, accompanied by a song of choice.

The Gophers’ starting center was introduced with wrestling legend Hulk Hogan’s theme song, “Real American” echoing through Williams.

The best team introduction among the five Big Ten teams who participated in the event, most likely goes to Michigan State.

Tom Izzo’s squad came out dressed as Spartans, of all things. Complete with helmets, swords and shields, the team attempted its best remake of the hit movie “300.”