‘A foundation of love and respect’: Relationship between Smart, Coleman an intrinsic part of UT’s success story

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When the buzzer sounded in Saturday’s Big 12 Tournament final, years of pent-up emotions finally surfaced. Texas head coach Shaka Smart produced a celebratory yell that momentarily tore away the intense but measured demeanor he brings to the sideline. His players celebrated a program first, a Big 12 Tournament title, and cut down the nets in Kansas City.

No player was more central to the winning effort than Matt Coleman. He scored 30 points on 10-of-14 shooting. He took on the task of guarding Oklahoma State star Cade Cunningham for much of the game while adding 21 points in the second 20 minutes.

No player has been more impactful on the program during Smart’s tenure than the senior guard from Virginia.

Coleman has put on the Longhorn uniform 127 times during his Texas career. He started at point guard in all 127 of those games. His value to the program is immense and was so before he even stepped foot on campus; Smart simply did not have a point guard during the disappointing 2016-17 season. To say it was a dire need is an understatement.

“At the end of the day, he had to decide between us and Duke,” Smart said Saturday. “When you’re coming out of high school and a program like that wants you and a coach like that, it takes a special type of guy to say ‘no, I’m going to do something different.’”

Not having a point guard on the roster drew plenty of deserved criticism, but the message Texas sent to Coleman was clear: we need you.

That was made obvious to Coleman, and not just in late 2016 and early 2017 leading up to his decision date. Before Smart was even at Texas, before Coleman played his first high school game, Smart made the Tidewater guard a priority. On January 16, 2017, those efforts were rewarded with Coleman choosing UT.

Over four years later, the vision Smart sold to Coleman was realized with a Big 12 Tournament title. It was made real by Coleman, the tournament’s most outstanding player.

“He believed in us and our program,” Smart said. “I’m just so happy that he’s being able to live out what we talked about during the recruiting process and what we talked about over these last three years.”

There have been plenty of difficult moments for both Smart and Coleman during their shared time at the University of Texas. His freshman year, Coleman missed three free throws in Lubbock that would have given the Longhorns a seven-point lead. Texas Tech eventually came back to win.

That same season, the program went through the difficulty of Andrew Jones’ leukemia diagnosis. Coleman’s sophomore year, he led an NIT caliber team. Last year, Texas lost an opportunity to prove it was a tournament caliber group.

The trials and tribulations continued this year. A hot start and a mediocre middle prefaced a surging finish. The effort it took was tremendous. When Texas finally added the first Big 12 Tournament title in program history, Coleman was in tears.

“It was tears of joy,” Coleman said Saturday. “I said ‘coach, this is what we’ve been saying since day one. It took four years to make it happen, to take a step in the right direction, and you did this. You built the culture here. I’m proud to be a part of it.’ The rest was just tears and feeling his love. It’s deeper than the game of basketball.”

Smart has received a decent amount of criticism throughout his time at Texas. From questions about his basketball philosophy and decision not to bring Havoc from VCU to Texas, to the 11-22 season in 2016-17, to another first round exit in 2018, to missing the tournament again in 2019 before a run to the NIT Championship. Much of it is fair, some of it isn’t, and the constant presence of a critical eye isn’t lost on Coleman or Smart.

Smart echoed his friend and UT great Augie Garrido when he said “this is for them” regarding the title following the game. His point guard was open and honest about what bringing the trophy back to Austin meant.

“I’m just so happy for him because people **** on him – excuse my language,” Coleman said. “He takes the heat for those bad years that Texas had, and it has led to this. I’m just happy for him because I want this for him. Not only for myself, but I want this for him because he’s been through a lot, and he’s been through it all here. I’m happy for him, that’s all I can say.”

The Big 12 Tournament title is an achievement worthy of celebration, but it is not Texas’ final goal in the 2020-21 season. Entering the NCAA Tournament as a three-seed, the Longhorns know they have the ability to win games in the “controlled environment” in Indianapolis. UT faces 14-seed Abilene Christian on Saturday night, then could play one of six-seed BYU or play-in game participants UCLA and Michigan State.

Coleman will need to continue playing at a high level, though 30 points on 71 percent shooting is tough to replicate. But Smart noted during Coleman’s performance, there were times he got onto his point guard including after a failed behind-the-back pass.

“Even in the 30-point game, we’re going back and forth but we have that kind of relationship,” Smart said Sunday. “I think he knows that underneath everything, there’s a foundation of love and respect.”

It took years to build that relationship. It took years, longer than many associated with Texas preferred, to get to the current level of basketball.

But those years cultivated a relationship between coach and player that has survived difficult times. Now a different type of survival is on Coleman’s mind.

“Now we just hope to survive and advance in the NCAA Tournament,” Coleman said. “And cut down some more nets.”

Cover photo courtesy of Texas Basketball