After three comfortable games to get their legs under them, Shaka Smart’s Texas Longhorn basketball team will travel this week to Portland, Ore. to participate in the PK80 tournament with 15 other Nike sponsored schools. The trip marks several firsts for the Longhorns as the team will travel for the first time in the regular season, and it also marks their first real test against good competition.
Texas faces Butler on Thanksgiving at 6 p.m. central in the “Motion” bracket. If the Longhorns defeat the Bulldogs, they likely face the powerhouse Duke Blue Devils on Friday. However, Smart made sure to note Monday that the team’s sole focus was on Butler.
“The competition is going to go up significantly on Thursday with Butler, so it’s critical for us to have the humility level to understand that if we put our mission first and we adhere to the cultural values and principles that we talk about on a regular basis, that’s going to give us the best chance to win,” Smart said. “It doesn’t guarantee winning, but it puts you in the best position that you possibly could be in.”
Butler not only brings a level of competition the Longhorns have not seen yet from Northwestern State, New Hampshire, and Lipscomb, but also a chance for Smart to learn how his team handles being away from the familiar Erwin Center.
The team has experience traveling; they traveled half a world away to Australia late in the summer and to Houston before the season. What they don’t have experience in is facing hardship while in a real game on the road.
“This week, for the first time, we’ll see a level of adversity within games, and that’s going to be something that’s going to be interesting for our guys in terms of how we handle that adversity and how we respond,” Smart said. “It’s going to go a long way toward whether or not we’re able to win.”
Smart constantly mentions the importance of a culture and how it is imperative to have a strong understanding of culture in order to have a strong program. He mentioned previously that he leads classes on his team’s culture. In addition, he attempts to let the players lead some parts of the program, including the first few minutes of media timeouts.
Seeing his players lead things is good for Smart, but he also knows he needs to be able to step in and coach basketball when it is needed.
“We’ve seen small examples of that,” Smart said. “We need more of that. It’s a fine line because basketball is a game of imperfection. There’s a lot of mistakes that are made and it happens fast. There’s mistakes that are made out of commission, there’s mistakes that are made out of omission, there’s mistakes that are selfish, there’s mistakes that aren’t selfish but somebody just didn’t see the right play or make the right read. There’s a big difference between those things.”
The PK80 Tournament in Portland presents a very unique opportunity for Texas. It somewhat validates them as one of the top basketball brands in Nike’s portfolio along with other powerhouses like Duke, Florida, Gonzaga, North Carolina, Michigan State, Connecticut, and several others.
Texas has the opportunity to play Duke, but Smart made sure to keep his team’s focus on what was in front of them. That said, Smart still wants his players to absorb the unique environment they will be in.
“Our focus is singularly on Butler, but I told the guys that there’s six other teams in our tournament and eight other teams that we won’t see, but we’ll probably run into those guys,” Smart said. “Portland’s not New York City. We’ll be running into teams. There’s sixteen teams there. I’m sure we’ll run into them when we’re practicing, media stuff, and the hotels.”
The unique timing of the tournament means that the Longhorns will be away from Texas during Thanksgiving.
When asked about Thanksgiving plans, Smart simply responded “we play, so that dominates our plans.” But with the major components of Thanksgiving being major components of Texas’ culture, Smart said that the team and those that traveled with the team to Portland would have an opportunity to give thanks.
“We’ll certainly talk as a team about what we’re thankful for,” Smart said. “Gratitude and appreciation is a huge component about what we talk about culturally, normally. Any time that there’s a holiday, particularly this specific holiday that’s about being grateful and being thankful, we’ll want to highlight that.”