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Shaka Smart spent six seasons leading the Longhorn basketball program. After an ascendant NCAA Tournament run from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011, Smart rode the momentum from five-straight NCAA Tournament appearances at Virginia Commonwealth into being Rick Barnes’ successor at The University of Texas.
One expectation many UT fans had was that Smart’s trademark “havoc” defensive system would follow him from Richmond to Austin. Those assumptions were, for the most part, incorrect. What wasn’t expected was the recruiting prowess Smart exhibited on the trail. During his tenure, three players were selected in the first round of the NBA Draft and two more, Kai Jones and Greg Brown III, have good chances to join their ranks.
However, Smart posted a limited amount of success on the floor. He made the NCAA Tournament just three times and never won a game upon reaching the field of 68 while at Texas. Even worse is two of the first-round losses were upsets according to seeding. His teams finished with a winning conference record twice, his first and final squads both reaching the 11 league win benchmark.
The 2021 Big 12 Tournament title, the first in program history, was an awesome experience for a coach and team that had battled through the tumultuous 2020-21 season, but a loss to 14-seed Abilene Christian in the first round undid any positive goodwill capital Smart had with the program.
That written, the time has arrived to assess the excellent, the good, the bad, and the ugly from the Smart era.
Ask any Longhorn fan and a vast majority will praise Smart for his unending positive demeanor, sterling character, and ability to relate to young student-athletes. Smart is objectively a good and principled man attempting to navigate the muddied waters of modern high-major NCAA basketball.
His players swear by him. Though he had his strategic limitations, few if any Longhorn basketball teams quit on Smart. There were dud performances, as there are for any athletic enterprise, but to say he lost the faith of his players would be inaccurate.
The finest illustration of this facet, and a defining moment of Smart’s career, occurred in 2018. Smart won’t have his praises sung by the masses for his on-court successes, but his handling of Andrew Jones’ leukemia diagnosis was a masterclass in organizational management.
Think back to the moment. Several young UT students were told one of their teammates and closest friends heard one of the worst phrases in the English language: you have cancer.
Then, they had to play a basketball game.
The program rallied around Jones and each other. Within 24 hours of being told of the diagnosis, Texas’ players had to play against a solid TCU team. Smart had to lead his team not only through the emotional turmoil, but the physical battle of a 50-minute double-overtime game. Regulation came and went, tied at 77. The first overtime came and went, tied at 88.
Even with all the events of the day, Texas was inches away from a demoralizing loss. Whether it be fate, some sort of divine intervention, or just an off attempt by a usually on player, TCU’s Jaylen Fisher missed a game-winning layup and Texas celebrated accordingly.
The normally muted-on-the-sidelines Smart let out a ton of emotion, and rightfully so. In one of the most trying times in program history, his team prevailed.
With help from eventual sixth overall pick Mo Bamba, Texas made the NCAA Tournament without one of its best players and close friend. The 2018 tournament resulted in an earlier exit than anticipated after a difficult season, but Smart’s ability to navigate both the basketball and emotional problems of Jones’ diagnosis exemplify the character he brought to the program.
Thanks to Smart’s recruiting ability, Texas was home to several players who were selected in the first round of the NBA Draft after one season in Austin. Jarrett Allen stayed home. Mo Bamba believed in Smart enough to travel from Harlem to Austin for his one season in college basketball. Jaxson Hayes rocketed into the lottery. Brown III and Kai Jones seem primed to join them in the NBA ranks.
No matter who is coaching, an NBA pedigree is important for recruiting purposes. Of course, Kevin Durant acts as the program’s monumental figure in the current mind of young basketball players, but the addition of those three sustained Texas’ ability to sell a path from high school, to the Erwin Center, to shaking NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s hand on the NBA Draft stage.
Though on-court results were lacking in the minds of many fans, especially compared to the heights of the Barnes era, Smart’s final 2020-21 season was the pinnacle of his time in Austin. Objectively, it was a good regular season. Texas swept perennial power Kansas. It finished in the AP top 10 and won the Big 12 Tournament title.
He made the NCAA Tournament in three of his six seasons in Austin. No small feat, but a feat obviously not great enough. He ran a clean program, not necessarily praiseworthy in its own right but almost so in the landscape of modern college basketball.
It’s probably inaccurate to say Smart left the program in better shape than he found it. It likely is in a similar spot to where it was when he made the mid-major to high-major jump in 2015. Still, he achieved some success on the Forty Acres, including a program first in winning the Big 12 Tournament title.
A reality of college basketball is that a select few programs can truly and honestly expect to make the NCAA Tournament on a yearly basis. Prior to Tom Penders’ and Barnes’ tenures in Austin, Texas was not one of those programs. Upon Barnes’ dismissal, the standard became what he could not achieve toward the end: yearly appearances.
Smart followed the same path Barnes tread at the end of his tenure. In 2016, Smart led a team composed mostly of players brought to Austin by his predecessor to the first round before being upset on a half-court buzzer-beater from Northern Iowa. His next appearance two seasons later resulted in an overtime loss to Nevada after surrendering a 14-point second half lead.
The following year, his program missed the tournament again but had that pain somewhat dampened by an NIT Championship. COVID-19 robbed everyone of a chance in 2020, but he made it once again in 2021 before succumbing to an upset.
For all his success in recruit’s living rooms, some failures followed. Here are some names of players Smart could not bring to Austin: De’Aaron Fox, Kam McGusty, Zhaire Smith, Jarrett Culver, Jared Vanderbilt, Jared Butler, Keldon Johnson, Quentin Grimes, LJ Cryer. Several of those players are in the NBA. Others are performing at a high level in the NCAA.
Pair that with the players Smart took in those players’ stead, many of whom left the program, and the misses stack up just as much as the hits.
No NCAA Tournament wins. That alone is the hardest pill to swallow for the Longhorn basketball program. Smart made it three times, twice the higher seed, and could not win. His losses were often heartbreaking – a buzzer-beater, an OT loss, and a 14-over-3 upset. Each loss cost him more and more goodwill.
What likely stands out most is his 2016-17 season. Texas went 11-22, its worst record in years. Losses to UT-Arlington, Kent State, and losing streaks of five and seven games put Smart in a poor spot early in his term with many Texas fans.
UT’s 11-22 record resulted in a .333 winning percentage, the worst for the program since Bob Weitlich’s 7-21 season in 1983-84 and easily its worst record as a member of the Big 12.
Texas’ style of play also never endeared itself to the fans. Smart made a point in his introductory press conference he likely wasn’t bringing full-fledged “havoc” to Austin, which left fans credibly asking, who exactly is UT bringing in as its head coach?
Overall, Smart’s results were not enough to see him stay longer in Austin. He made a homecoming of sorts to his childhood home of Wisconsin to become the head coach of Marquette.
Every head coach’s tenure is filled with an array of results, positive and negative. Smart’s included plenty of positive, but more negative in the minds of those who matter.