Basketball

A frustrated Shaka Smart returns to his program

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Shaka Smart has recovered from COVID-19. Texas’ practice on Sunday was the first one he was able to run since his positive test. In addition, he said Monday that Sunday’s practice was the first time someone within the Texas men’s basketball program was not in isolation or quarantine in almost three weeks. Good news, all around.

However, Smart’s tone during his media availability was one of frustration bordering on anger. The honest and sometimes loquacious Smart started his availability with a response to what it was like watching his team fall to the Oklahoma Sooners while he was in isolation not just away from his team, but away from his family, too.

“Not very enjoyable,” Smart curtly replied.

No head coach is used to watching his team alone while suffering from the symptoms of a novel coronavirus. For his team to be down two starters, a key contributor, and him, and still have to play the game? That seemed to be the reason behind his frustration.

The Big 12 mandates that if teams have six scholarship players available, then they have enough players to play in a game. It says nothing about the head coach.

The Texas program never went on pause, but Smart revealed Monday that his positive test was the last of a string of COVID issues within the program. Texas had not officially announced if any players were being held out of team activities.

But there were plenty.

“The week where I ended up testing positive, we were not shut down completely but the vast majority of people on our team were in quarantine or isolation,” Smart said. “There was one day I did a workout with two guys.”

Two players in a Division I basketball practice. Missing two starters and a key contributor for a rivalry game against a top 25 team at home against a rival with no fans in the stands.

“I think you can tell that was a very, very difficult day for me,” Smart said regarding last Tuesday, the day of Texas’ loss to the Sooners.

Smart was asked, should the games even be played? Despite his tone, he acknowledged that pausing or shutting down completely can lead to a different emotional toll. He mentioned he spoke with other coaches who had experienced shutdowns and said to simply call things off was “not the simple solution either.”

There is also the financial aspect of it, which Smart acknowledged. The NCAA needs the NCAA Tournament. Same with individual conferences and their tournaments. Athletic departments want their programs to play and have continually maintained they will play only if it is safe to do so.

Still, the message seems to change constantly.

“I’ve always said from the beginning we’re going to defer to the doctors and what they think is best,” Smart said. “I think it is a little frustrating to be honest that there is a wide variety of opinions even amongst the doctors.”

That isn’t any sort of political indictment. It’s abject frustration at the world as it currently stands during a pandemic. It’s the lack of information. It’s the constant monitoring and testing. It’s COVID, to put it plainly.

“If they say it’s safe to play the games, then we’re going to give our guys the opportunity to do that,” Smart said. “I think if you talk to the majority of our guys, they want to play. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been moments where, for some of them, they’ve been like ‘wow, this is really, really strange.’”

This past Friday was one of those occasions. Texas’ game with Kentucky was canceled due to positive tests and contact tracing within the UK program. Smart, who would not have made the trip to Kentucky were the game to have occurred, said that his team was disappointed to lose its chance to play a blueblood program.

Kentucky isn’t playing like a nationally elite program in 2020-21. Baylor is, and they play in Austin on Tuesday at 6 p.m.

Texas, ranked No. 6 by the AP, will have its shot at the blistering No. 2 Bears. And though Smart’s frustration beamed through the Zoom screen, his signature gratitude for the ability to coach began to shine through as his availability ended, especially knowing that Texas fans would finally be able to cheer his team at the Erwin Center for the first time in several weeks.

“Extremely grateful for being out there with those guys and the chance towards moving forward,” Smart said. “Like I said, we’re going to do everything we can to go after this game. So excited for our guys that the arena won’t be completely empty.”

Cover photo courtesy of Texas Athletics