Brief dance caps season of adversity

The Gophers came together in time for another NCAA berth, first-round exit.

Marco LaNave

When the Gophers menâÄôs basketball season began in November, the focus was on recruitsâÄô legal issues. When it ended last Friday, much of the attention was on whether the head coach would return next season. For a lot of college basketball programs, these bookends of a season would tell the story of a turbulent and disappointing campaign. But the 2009-10 season was more than that for the Gophers. Preseason expectations of an NCAA tournament run gave way to doubt about the teamâÄôs postseason chances. Yet the Gophers rode out waves of distractions and took the program on perhaps its greatest ride ever in the Big Ten tournament. It amounted to a 21-14 record, another NCAA tournament appearance and another first-round exit âÄî this time to sixth-seeded Xavier âÄî but Gophers head coach Tubby Smith said he was proud that his players handled adversity this season. âÄúIâÄôm really proud of how our guys showed the character that they have,âÄù said Smith, who dismissed rumors of a move to Auburn after his teamâÄôs loss to Xavier last Friday. âÄúSo IâÄôm just happy that they kept believing, kept the faith in one another, and thatâÄôs what itâÄôs about in any family.âÄù Beyond the court As the Gophers heated up in the seasonâÄôs final weeks, winning four of six games to close the regular season and winning three straight to reach the programâÄôs first-ever Big Ten championship game, Smith more frequently said he was seeking to impart something beyond the basketball court to his players. âÄúI told them at the end about respect,âÄù Smith said after FridayâÄôs loss. âÄúPeople are going to say and do things. YouâÄôve got to hold your head up high and respect your teammates, respect the people that believe in you, that care for you and love you.âÄù During pregame warm-ups at the Big Ten tournament, the players wore T-shirts that said âÄúRespect,âÄù something they hoped to earn that weekend and did with upsets of Michigan State and Purdue, two of the three regular season conference co-champions. âÄúThe only thing you can control is your effort and your enthusiasm, so we just used our shirts with respect just to play hard,âÄù senior guard Lawrence Westbrook said. âÄúIt was just a team thing. We kept it between ourselves, but anybody wants to earn respect in anything they do.âÄù Senior contributors FridayâÄôs loss completed the careers of three seniors, including the last two players who played for a Minnesota head coach other than Tubby Smith. The day before the final regular-season game at Williams Arena, senior forward Damian Johnson recalled being asked to sing the school fight song his freshman year. âÄúI kept on messing up,âÄù he said. âÄúWe had to keep practicing early in the morning until I got the Rouser right; IâÄôll never forget about that.âÄù Now Johnson wonâÄôt soon be forgotten for his career of 127 games âÄî tied for the third-most in program history. Johnson now stands second in program history in steals and third all-time in blocked shots. Smith said he thought Johnson should have been the Big Ten defensive player of the year and called it âÄúa travestyâÄù that Johnson wasnâÄôt named to the conferenceâÄôs all-defensive team, despite leading the conference in steals and blocking the third-most shots in the regular season. Westbrook, the teamâÄôs leading scorer and often the go-to player the past two seasons, finished as the 20th-leading scorer in Minnesota history. But Westbrook, who never received more than an honorable mention in the all-conference selections, had his challenges, including less playing time this season when Smith wanted him to play better defense. After FridayâÄôs loss ended his collegiate career, Westbrook thanked his coaching staff, teammates and himself. âÄúIâÄôd like to thank myself for sticking through it; IâÄôve been through a lot here,âÄù he said. âÄúWith distractions or other people saying stuff âĦ I think a lot of people probably would have broke down, but IâÄôd just like to thank my family and just thank God that I stuck with it, and I never let anybody break my spirit.âÄù Growing into next season Though they will lose their top defensive player and two of their three leading scorers, the Gophers will return junior guard Blake Hoffarber, now the programâÄôs all-time leading 3-point shooter with 200 career 3-point field goals. âÄúHopefully next year some guys can improve over the offseason here,âÄù Hoffarber said. âÄúHopefully we can get here [to the tournament] once again next year and make a run at it.âÄù Devoe Joseph, who started the final 17 games at point guard after junior Al Nolen was ruled ineligible, was critical to the late surge, as he scored in double figures in eight of 11 games before the NCAA tournament. After Joseph was named to the All-Big Ten tournament team, Smith said the sophomore had made the transition to point guard very well. âÄúHeâÄôs got to get stronger âÄî thatâÄôs his biggest weakness right now,âÄù Smith said. âÄúBut he has great stamina; heâÄôs very competitive. HeâÄôs got to get comfortable in handling the ball. Sometimes he has a tendency âÄî because of his competitiveness âÄî to want to do a little too much.âÄù Sophomore centers Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson were among several players who showed improvement, something Smith hopes for in all areas of the program. âÄúThereâÄôs some things we have to continue to do recruiting wise, facility wise, all kinds of things we can get better at,âÄù Smith said. âÄúWe can build on this. ItâÄôs a lot of positive things that have happened for us over the last couple of weeks and over the last month âĦ ThatâÄôs what weâÄôre going to focus on going forward, that this is just another step of maintaining âĦ continuing to grow the program.âÄù