Is this Smart team different or more of the same?

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You won’t find any lazy comparisons between basketball coach Shaka Smart and football coaches Charlie Strong and Tom Herman in this writing.

Smart is different than both Herman and Strong because he coaches a completely different sport. That is enough for me to stop that comparison dead in its tracks. If that tidbit doesn’t suffice, consider Smart has outlasted both of them.

None of that is written to absolve Smart of the lackluster results of his tenure. Two NCAA Tournament appearances and a NIT championship fall below the standards of Texas. But it is to say instead of comparing Smart to the first- or second-highest paid public employee in the state who coaches a completely different sport, compare Smart against himself.

Texas basketball finds itself at an interesting checkpoint for the 2020-21 season. It is 12-5, good for a 0.706 winning percentage, and 6-4 in the Big 12. It is ranked in the top 15 after several weeks in the top five. The overall winning percentage of Smart teams at this same juncture over the last three seasons? 0.609, 0.583, and 0.625. The rankings at the same point? Non-existent, UT was unranked.

This squad is performing better than any other Smart team. They are 16th in KenPom rankings, good for second in the Big 12 (it would also be the highest finish in KenPom during the Smart era). They are No. 21 in the most recent NCAA NET rankings, bolstered by having zero losses in Quadrants 2, 3, and 4. They topped Kansas by a record margin in Allen Fieldhouse. They won six straight at one point in the year.

Texas is playing defense at a high level. They rank first in the Big 12 in defensive rebounds per game, field goal percentage defense, and three-point field goal percentage defense. No team within the conference pulls down more rebounds per game, and only 13 teams in the nation rebound better than the Longhorns.

Yet there is a belief this team is destined for the same old, same old from Smart and disappointment is just around the corner.

There is evidence to support that perspective. Baylor has dominated Smart teams and that trend continued in the most recent matchup. The Longhorns just lost 4-of-5 games and escaped Kansas State, who has a single conference victory, with a three-point win. COVID consequences do exist, but Texas dropped close games to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech.

“In none of our recent games have we been terrific on both ends in the same game,” Smart said after the 80-77 win against KSU. “Obviously, that’s what you have to be to beat the very, very best teams.”

It’s tough to win the Big 12 crown, an oft-stated goal by current Longhorns, after dropping three straight conference games. It’s a familiar occurrence for Smart while at Texas.

“The game is not necessarily won individually on one side,” Andrew Jones said Tuesday night. “You have to put two sides together, two halves together in order to be a complete, championship contending team.”

The offense is overly reliant on the outside shot. Texas couldn’t reach 70 points in 50 minutes of basketball in Stillwater as a result of shooting 25% from the field and a terrible 5-of-35 from three. When UT reached 79 points versus Oklahoma, it was a result of two-point field goals and free throws. Zone defense still disturbs the Texas offense.

These aren’t the bugs. These are the features of a Smart team.

The 2020-21 Longhorns have a level of athleticism few in the nation can match. That athleticism does help cover some of the problems affecting the team, and credit is due to Smart and strength coach Andrea Hudy for building a roster that can physically out-perform many teams.

In fact, that seems to be Smart’s vision for success at Texas. It should be no surprise his most physically impressive team is, at this point, his most impressive team.

“As soon as we start playing that brand of basketball that we played at the beginning of the year, I feel like we’re going to take a big leap,” Jones said.

They are built different compared to other teams that have worn burnt orange. Will they play different?

“I told the guys in the locker room after the game this is the time of year where we either get closer, we either get more connected, or, and this is regardless of results, we don’t,” Smart said. “We have to be intentional about coming together.”

The final eight conference games include contests at Baylor, at Oklahoma, at Texas Tech, and home against West Virginia.

There is evidence to say this year’s team will be different. There is evidence to say this team is on track for more of the same.

It will all play out over these last eight games. Smart, the basketball coach, will determine the final answer.

“Happy to find a way to win,” Smart said Tuesday before leaving Manhattan. “At this time of year, now it’s all about us learning from it and improving.”

Cover photo courtesy of Texas Athletics