What is Tubby Smith's best quality as a head basketball coach?
It's not his strategy or his player development, though both are Grade A. It's not his defensive acumen or his passion for the game, both world class as well.
Realistically, it's his steadfast refusal to succomb to the pitfalls of overindulgence. Witness his comments before and after Saturday's upset loss to Vanderbilt at Rupp Arena.
On the rout of South Carolina last Tuesday:
"Our personnel and depth were better than theirs, and it showed. You can get a false sense of confidence if you're not careful."
Of the preparations for the game on Saturday, postgame:
"We haven't practiced well. ... I'm disappointed , but I'm not really surprised."
Sure, some of that can be construed rightly as coachspeak -- the requisite "We need to improve" jargon that even undefeated national contenders still spout off after games against Directional U. But for Tubby Smith, a coach long on experience but short on outward displays of ego, such stuff is as typical as "The Stomp" and "The Stare."
Perhaps the only odd thing about Tubby's consistently under-the-radar demeanor is the fact that her plies his trade at Kentucky, a school so above radar that it is, in fact, the nation's winningest all-time. This duality is complicated by the fact that a significant portion of Kentucky's devout fanbase feels left out by Smith's quiet public persona, and, subsequently, the team's as well. Much to the chagrin of a breast-beating crew of blue-clad fanatics, Smith continues to prepare each season as he did the last, confident in his experiences and methods, even -- as in the case of last year's squad -- in light of seemingly counter evidence. The more they push, the less he gives.
It is often the core believers' verisimilitude that acts as a prop against such frustration. Message boards and blogs now pulsate with a certain underlying tension surrounding the coach and his team. While everyone wants to believe, it seems that recent history -- a lack of trips to the hallowed Final Four -- has worked to undermine the otherwise grounded and solid foundation Smith has established at Kentucky. Facts and statistics have only further ensconced the wants and the want-nots into their death-grip. And if it were wins alone that made for pats on the back, that might be the end of it, but discussions of style and flair overwhelm those of substance and consistency. It's to the point where one begins to wonder if even a second Tubby national title would really ease up the pressure. It's gotten that out of hand.
But does any of it affect Mr. Smith? From the outside, it would appear not. Looking closely at his current group, there are signs that all the talk and the hand-wringing are merely words on an internet screen, complaints lodged in dim bars over cheap beers. After the debacle that was last year's Cats, Smith is quietly building a winner again, at his pace (or, rather, at the pace his players learn the Smith way). While it may still drive the hungriest UK fans mad, Smith's goals remain focused on fashioning the best team possible for March, not for November.
And yet, losses like Saturday's really sting, however much Smith "builds" to March. For all my casual dismissal of style as a legitimate gripe, this isn't brain surgery, it's basketball. And we watch to be entertained, on some level. So when parity comes to Rupp Arena, the natives get understandably restless. Vanderbilt had never won -- not once -- in 28 years at Rupp. Now they have won two in a row. For a coach trying to instill in his charges the value of team defense, the need for shooting the gaps, for blocking out, for stuffing the three, discussion of aura, of Kentucky's theoretical place in the order of the basketball universe is no doubt rather useless. But for fans, who aren't privy to the inside of the new basketball practice facility, who can recall only the good wins and never the bad losses in any prior year, and who -- for right or wrong -- hang their emotional hat on what Tubby and the Boys accomplish, it is important.
Meanwhile, Smith plows ahead, focused on fixing shooting flaws, ball movement, defending better. He sees bad practices and potential danger zones. He works to instill a sense of urgency in his All-American-level big man and a sense of calm in his hyperactive combo guard. However much we gesticulate, wave at the oncoming traffic, it's Smith that must drive the car.
While it may not always seem like it, maybe Tubby's cool hand in the face of pressure is exactly what the program needs, our wild speculation be damned.