The Duke-Virginia Commonwealth game last night reminded me why I don't like Tubby Smith. VCU plays a very high-tempo game, with end-to-end defense, transition offense, 3-pointers off the fast break and everything imaginable to turn up the pressure. Despite this high energy playing style, the coach for Virginia Commonwealth played his best player, Eric Maynor, 39 minutes. Maynor is the point guard, handling the ball on every possession and playing defense against the opponents' point guard from end to end. It's a very high energy assignment, and the coach saw no reason to take him out of the game except for a very short time. At the end of the game, Maynor had the legs to hit a game-winning 17 foot jumper.
Tubby Smith plays a slow-down, low energy style at Kentucky, yet does not have any player who averages more than 32 minutes per game. He goes VERY deep into his bench in every game, despite the fact that his best players are not (or at least should not be) tired. If Eric Maynor can play non-stop for 39 minutes playing the VCU style, Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley can play 35 minutes per game, and 40 in big games.
VCU knows how to win a tough game. Ride your best player until he drops. Even if you are overall less talented than your opponent, you have a fighting chance if your best player is better than their best player, if you will put the game in his hands. Tubby won't ever do that, and I think it's contributed to his job being in jeopardy.
Tubby Smith has been undeniably successful throughout his career. He has made it to what amounts to almost the top of the ladder as far as college basketball head coaching jobs go. He coaches at Kentucky, the juggernaut of SEC basketball. In ten years there, he's won a national championship. He's won the conference I don't know how many times. He hasn't missed the NCAA tournament during his tenure at Kentucky. Despite all this, he may be getting fired at the end of the season.
The problem? Well, I mentioned it already. He won a national championship. He wasn't won multiple national championships. At Kentucky, I guess, success means more than one national championship in a decade. What's more, the championship came in his first year when he was coaching a very talented squad left to him by Rick Pitino, and he hasn't reached the Final Four since that year.
I'll leave it to others to decide if that record is good enough to keep the job at Kentucky. However, one thing I know for sure is that I do not want him coaching at LSU. I think he does things that make no sense to anyone who thinks about them even for a little while.
My biggest complaint about him is that he plays a very low-tempo game, slowing it down and slowing it down some more. Yet despite this slow pace to the game, he has 10 players averaging more than 7 minutes of playing time per game, and no one averages more than 32 minutes. Only two players average more than 30 minutes per game. He goes deep into his bench in every game, often having long stretches of play in which he does not have a member of his starting five on the floor.
But Richard, you ask, what is so wrong about using your bench? Nothing... if. Playing your bench a lot is a really good idea under certain conditions. If you play a high tempo, high-pressure, running type game, you need your bench. You need your bench because your best players simply cannot play long stretches all season without wearing down. (But, they can play long stretches occasionally, when you need it. See Eric Maynor.)
Think about the Arkansas Razorbacks under Nolan Richardson. 40 minutes of hell. They pressed. They played full court defense. They attacked the ball. They tried to run you out of the gym. VCU plays a lot like those Arkansas teams. They needed a deep bench, and they needed their bench to play.
Kentucky, as mentioned early, plays the exact opposite style. They slow it down. They play half court. They don't run much. They don't use a lot of energy. Their players shouldn't tire out. If your players aren't tiring out, you should play your best players all the time. These guys are 18, 19, 20, or 21 years old. They are strong and they are athletic. Your best players can play 35 minutes in a game under these conditions, 40 when you need them.
Every minute you're playing your 10th best player, is a minute you're not giving to your 9th, 8th, 7th, ..., or 1st best player. If you're playing your 10th best player in a competitive game in which your best player can still play at his highest level, you're simply not putting your best product on the floor. You're making your team less talented by not putting your most talented people on the floor. You're downgrading your own team.
Think about it this way. If Barry Bonds was healthy, and if baseball allowed free substitution, do you think the Giants would take him out of a close game and let someone else bat in his place? No. They'd be insane to do that, because they would be VOLUNTARILY not putting their best player where he can do the most good for them. I understand that in basketball, a player can rarely play an entire game and still be effective, but when a coach plays one of his best players fewer minutes than he can handle, he is doing the equivalent of allowing someone to bat in Barry Bonds' place.
Tubby does this ALL THE TIME.
The only other reason I can imagine to not play your best players as much as they can play, without tiring out, is if you don't know who your best players are. If you don't know who your best 8 players are by the time conference play rolls around, you have big problems. Incidentally, I think this is one of the problems LSU has had this year. We have had a very hard time figuring out what rotation of players gives us the best skill set available. I think we know that Big Baby and Tasmin are our two best players, but I think we have had a very difficult time figuring out who our 3rd through 8th best players are, and players keep floating in and out of that rotation with little stability.
I think there have been times in Tubby's tenure at Kentucky that his team has had the same problems, except that there have been times I don't think anyone knew who their best or second-best players were. I watch a lot of Kentucky basketball (probably more than LSU) because my wife is a fan and they come on television a lot. There have been years when I've watched probably 15 or 20 Kentucky games and I had no idea which player would get the ball in his hands if they were in a last-minute-behind-by-a-point situation.
I think part of this stems from Tubby having a very domineering personality. He is so intent on controlling his team and making sure that everyone knows that no one is bigger than the team that he does not allow the players to give the team a personality. And by "no one is bigger than the team," he means "no one is bigger than Tubby." He seems to delight in benching even his best players for making miscues or not putting forth maximum effort for a short period of time, to the point where none of his players are ever allowed to become a team leader. You can't be a team leader if your coach embarrasses you once every two or three games. I'm not saying a coach shouldn't coach, but I think the best coaches let their best players define the personality of the team, and let the team leaders lead. I don't think Tubby has it in him to let anyone other than him lead his team.
I'm not saying he's a bad coach. I think he just has weaknesses that become glaringly obvious when you watch him in action enough.