Smart hopes players-only meeting brings out “the best versions of ourselves”

Shaka Smart (Will Gallagher/IT)
Shaka Smart (Will Gallagher/IT)

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AUSTIN — In a recent media availability, freshman guard Jase Febres joked that the Longhorns probably lead the entire NCAA in meetings. On Monday, they added another one, though it was likely one of the more contentious get-togethers of the entire season.

Following a 74-73 double-overtime loss to Baylor, head coach Shaka Smart left his players to work things out in Cooley Pavilion while he spoke to the media.

“I’m just going to let them do what they’re doing,” Smart said following the game Monday. “I think it could be productive, but they’re in the middle of it right now.”

It’s easy to see why frustrations could have reached a boiling point after the loss to Baylor. Not only was it Texas’ third straight (15-11, 5-8 Big 12), but it also put the Longhorns’ NCAA Tournament chances in extreme jeopardy.

It wasn’t a question of effort, like it was against Kansas State. It wasn’t a question of defense, like it was against TCU. For Smart and the Longhorns on Monday, it came down to just not being one play better.

“The reality is if we get a stop on that last play, your (the media’s) narrative is different,” Smart said to the media. “From our standpoint as players and coaches, it’s needing to be one play better in a game like that. From your standpoint, it’s three straight losses and obviously I know that’s the way it works. We want to win. We want to win bad. Each game you look at on an individual basis and you say ‘what did we need to do better’ and there’s a lot of things from tonight we need to look at.”

Smart knows what is happening outside of Cooley Pavilion. He knows there is doubt surrounding the team and their ability to make it to the postseason after missing it entirely last year. Does he believe his team’ leadership can stop the slide? “Absolutely, they can stop it,” he said.

While he has that belief, there are some things working against Texas. They don’t appear to be a team designed to be able to play well when they have to play multiple games in the span of a week. Postseason play will demand that, but the demands on Texas’ bodies may prevent them from even getting there.

In Texas’ last three games, five players have made up the majority of minutes played; juniors Eric Davis, Dylan Osetkowski, Kerwin Roach, and freshmen Matt Coleman and Mohamed Bamba. All five of those players have played at least thirty minutes in the last three games, save for Roach’s 24 against TCU. All five also played at least 43 minutes in the loss to Baylor.

Smart knows it’s affecting his team’s quality of play, but it also shows that he isn’t quite ready to trust freshmen Jase Febres and Jericho Sims for more than 10-to-15 minutes per game. In the end, Smart isn’t placing any sort of blame on fatigue.

“It’s not an excuse,” Smart said. “You’ve got to find a way. I thought those guys showed good fight. I didn’t think that they had a look on their face like the fatigue got the best of them. I’ve seen that before and I didn’t see that tonight.”

To Smart’s credit, this is the first time any sort of sign of lack of total unity within the locker room has managed to creep into the media’s headlines. The problem is that it came during the most difficult stretch of Texas’ season.

Despite all that, Smart believes there is enough leadership to successfully get through the final stretch heading into the conference tournament.

“I think there is, but all of us are going to need to be the best versions of ourselves,” Smart said. “I’m not talking about playing wise. I’m talking about everything we do in terms of our approach toward each other, toward practice, toward preparation, toward the mental part of handling adversity. I think there is but it doesn’t just happen.

“You don’t just move on without finding a way to be extremely tough minded and think the right things, and say the right things, and do the right things. That’s really, really hard for young people, but we don’t have a choice. We’ve got to find a way to do that.”