AUSTIN — During the offseason, Texas head coach Shaka Smart made sure his entire roster knew how he wanted UT basketball to operate.
He was welcoming a host of young players expected to contribute early, with just three upperclassmen, juniors Dylan Osetkowski, Eric Davis, and Kerwin Roach playing big minutes for the Longhorns.
Smart and the rest of the assistants did the normal basketball coaching, including teaching some of the offense’s core principles and instructing how to utilize the diamond press. Something he did off the court, however, is what the team falls back on game after game.
The staff gave the team a “culture document” and held weekly classes regarding Smart’s culture during the offseason. The document has some sayings and principles Smart wants the team to remember or use to move forward through any situation.
“When you play the type of schedule that we’ve played all year long, particularly since we’ve gotten in Big 12 play, you’re going to have times where you have some challenges,” Smart said Friday. “You hit some adversity.”
Texas is on its way to a much better season in Smart’s third year (14-7, 4-4 Big 12) than it was in his dismal second season, failing to make the NCAA tournament, finish above .500, and win a true road game.
Smart failed last year but made multiple improvements, with help from a top-notch recruiting class, heading into 2017-18. Learning from that or any failure is something he wanted the team to utilize. After all, he did it himself between years two and three.
“Let’s say we lose a game, we fail forward is one of our sayings,” freshman Jase Febres said Thursday. “Regardless of how you fail, we’re going to take it as a learning experience and move on. No matter what happens, he’s always going back to that culture document. We strive off that. We thrive off that.”
Smart has been able to emphasize failing forward at multiple junctures this season. After a disappointing loss to Michigan, the Longhorns responded with a three-game win streak. After losing the conference opener to Kansas, Texas went on the road and defeated Iowa State. After multiple disappointing conference losses, Texas responded with a victory, including over highly-ranked opponents in TCU and Texas Tech.
“We use the word failure that’s defined in different ways,” Smart said. “We define it as an event that doesn’t go your way, whether it’s a missed shot, or a game you lose, or it’s a tough week. Just being able to move forward and respond to that, I think our guys have done a nice job.”
The coaches are able to apply that principle to the team, but the players can apply the cultural principles to their own individual play.
Davis, who had an extremely disappointing sophomore season, has improved his field goal and three point shooting by eight and ten percentage points. He’s embraced the sixth-man role this season.
“Going back to last year, that wasn’t my best season,” Davis said Thursday. “It was not the season that I wanted. You fail forward.”
This improved season is part of a personal mission for Davis. “Every day I just go out there and try and prove everybody wrong,” he said.
On the opposite side of failing forward is continuing to move forward with success. Smart uses various sayings and principles often, even outside the realm of being with his team. However, one thing he stressed to his team over this stretch of conference games was to continue to play hungry.
“What we’ve hit them with is another principle which is basically when you have success, when you win a game or when you play well individually in a game or in a couple of games, the mindset is to want more,” Smart said. “Not to be satisfied. Not to be any less driven, any less motivated than you were when you lost to West Virginia by a big margin. You should be more motivated.”
One thing Texas has going for them in this regard is a strong team bond. Both Davis and Febres talked about how close the team is, and the Longhorns rallying around playing for sophomore guard Andrew Jones has only drawn them closer and wanting to succeed more, according to Febres.
Febres also mentioned that this Texas basketball team was one of the closest units he’s been a part of. He said even in high school at Westfield, he would only hang out with a couple of teammates. He mentioned that transfer guard Elijah Long would only hang out with one or two guys at Mount St. Mary’s.
Febres said on this team, everybody hangs out with everybody.
“Our culture isn’t just on the court,” Febres said. “Our connection on the court is stronger than a lot of teams.”
Proof of this? After their media obligations, Davis and Febres joined the team for a players-only dinner at Pappasito’s.
“Our guys are really close,” Smart said when asked about team dinners the following day. “They genuinely enjoy spending time together. Sometimes we encourage them to just go eat together as a group. Sometimes they do it on their own without us knowing. That was one that we set up.
“They enjoy time where they can let their hair down away from us.”
That closeness is something Smart uses to help drive them toward success.
“They’re part of a pretty special fraternity,” Smart said. “I always tell the guys this identity that you have as a part of this team can be as special as you want it to be. I think that’s a part of what makes them close.”