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Shaka Smart’s Texas basketball team is ranked No. 4 in the latest AP poll following a 25-point win over the Kansas Jayhawks in Phog Allen Fieldhouse. That was Texas’ first win in Lawrence since 2011 and only their second in program history. The Longhorns were the NCAA’s team of the week, and all the news surrounding the program is positive, save for Gerald Liddell’s recent decision to leave.
The No. 4 ranking is great. Wins in the Phog are great, too. But Smart had fire in his belly when speaking with the media Monday about how the season doesn’t end with a No. 4 ranking in January, and that his team needs to continue to have an edge as they traverse the Big 12 continuing with Iowa State on Tuesday night.
“If where you’re ranked dulls your edge, then you’re not a real competitor,” Smart said. “If your last game is still impressive to you two or three days later, then that doesn’t really say much about what you’re trying to be or where you’re trying to go.”
Smart used a word from one of the most famous soundbites in sports history during one of his passionate explanations; “rat poison.”
When Alabama coach Nick Saban said it in 2017, it became synonymous with basking in positive attention from outside voices. Now to be fair, outside voices haven’t provided too much positive attention to Texas basketball in recent years for on-court matters.
This is the first time at Texas that Smart has truly had to deflect against it with his team. Luckily for him, his veteran-led team seems to get it.
Smart told a story about how prior to one of Texas’ games in Asheville, NC for the Maui Invitational, junior guard Courtney Ramey explained they were about to play in a statement game. He did it before the next game. Then the one after as well.
“That is a sign of him really getting it and understanding every time you get a chance to take the court, especially in this crazy season with all this uncertainty, the first thing that should be on our minds when we get to get on the floor is intense gratitude,” Smart said. “Wow! We get to do this! We get to play and coach a game we love!”
“Then from there, quickly, it should be what is it going to take to win? What is it going to take to be our best? That’s that edge that I’m talking about.”
Ramey, along with fellow guards Matt Coleman and Andrew Jones, have helped Texas keep their edge throughout the 2019-20 season. Their efforts on both ends of the floor have been crucial to Texas’ 8-1 start.
They need to continue to avoid a familiar letdown.
Last year, in an analogous situation, Texas welcomed a middling Oklahoma State team to the Erwin Center. The Drum was packed, and fans were excited and ready to cheer on Texas before they traveled to the Big 12 Tournament.
The Cowboys won 81-59, and Texas stumbled into the postseason that never took place.
Though Iowa State is a different team, and this is of course a different season, Smart doesn’t want his team to play out of avoidance. It’s harder to avoid defeat that way.
“You can’t say, let’s not let that Oklahoma state thing happen again,” Smart said. “That’s not how it works as a competitor. You have to go after the other team and say, ‘you are in our way and we are trying to win, and we’re going to do everything under our control to win.’”
UT and ISU split the season series in 2019-20, with each team winning the home contest. No fans will be at the Erwin Center, the school announced Monday, so that competitive edge Smart is looking for may be essential to Texas’ efforts.
“There has to be a reason that you’re here, especially in this year and this craziness going on with all this stuff around us,” Smart said. “Why are you here on the court doing what you’re doing, and then how does that go into your approach towards Iowa State tomorrow night?”