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AUSTIN — Texas vice president for athletics Chris Del Conte has said that the goal of the Longhorns’ athletic department is to finish in the top 10 in every sport it sponsors. Since Del Conte started at UT in December of 2017, two of the three revenue sports produced a top 10 finish.
The lone exception is Shaka Smart’s men’s basketball program.
Smart is 48-38 overall and 20-26 in Big 12 play since Del Conte’s hire. Smart teams missed the NCAA Tournament twice in four seasons, negating any chance of a top 10 finish. Two heartbreaking losses by a combined seven points constitute his two March Madness appearances.
With Monday’s 52-45 loss to top-ranked Baylor, Smart failed to procure an incontrovertible signature win for the Longhorns’ tournament resume and lowered his career record against the Bears to 2-9. Texas’ seven-man rotation couldn’t stop BU from extending its winning streak to 21 games.
In addition, pockets of one of this season’s largest student turnouts began “Fire Shaka” chants when the outcome of the game had yet to be determined midway through the second half.
The Longhorns are 14-10 (4-7 Big 12).
If Texas were to make the field of 68, Smart would join Tom Penders and Rick Barnes as the only coaches in school history to make three tournament appearances. If the Longhorns miss out in 2019-20, Smart would remain grouped with several coaches who failed to win a tournament game.
Pair another potential missed tournament, and therefore another missed opportunity at a top 10 finish, with growing apathy from the fan base toward the program and Del Conte will have a decision to make after this season: does he give Smart another year even though he hasn’t contended for the athletic department’s stated goal, or dismiss him, beginning Del Conte’s first search for a head coach of a revenue sport as Texas’ AD?
At the recent Texas Athletics Town Hall held February 4 at the LBJ Library, Del Conte fielded several questions concerning Smart, the basketball program, and what additional support was needed to help the Longhorns succeed.
“I knew that question was coming,” Del Conte joked at the first Smart related query from the fans.
He answered audience questions in the manner a competent athletic director should, but when speaking with reporters after the event he admitted he knew of the fan base’s gripes with the current regime.
“We understand they want us to be successful,” Del Conte said. “There’s also those kids working hard. Shaka is working his tail off. We also have to do everything we can to support our coaches and our student-athletes. The noise around him is real, and I acknowledge that.”
That noise comes from close-but-no-cigar results that have defined Smart’s time in Austin, with Monday’s result versus Baylor serving as another example. Some outcomes have been totally in his control, others totally out of it. Still, they’ve occurred during his time on the bench and are part of what Del Conte will consider should Texas miss another NCAA Tournament.
His first tournament appearance came after his first year in Austin, and that season had its fair share of bad luck early. The Longhorns missed the presence of Cameron Ridley for conference play, and fell to Northern Iowa in the first round via a half-court buzzer beater.
Not landing a true point guard for his second year during his longtime pursuit of Matt Coleman led to Smart’s mortgage of 2016-17. Texas finished 11-22 and the Brooklyn Nets selected freshman center Jarrett Allen with pick No. 22 in the 2017 NBA Draft.
Smart landed his point guard in Coleman and his big man in Mohamed Bamba for 2017-18, but tragedy changed the course of that season around the midway point when Andrew Jones received a leukemia diagnosis he eventually overcame.
Then, Eric Davis’ season ended after it was revealed he received a $1500 payment from a sports agent’s associate. His backcourt services could have been used when Texas squandered a 14-point second-half lead against Nevada in the 2018 Tournament, eventually falling 87-83 in overtime.
Last season, Texas ended on a five-game winning streak and raised a banner for a NIT Championship, but that’s still short of top 10 contention.
In 2020, the win over Purdue that Texas hung its hat on lost its luster as the Boilermakers accumulated losses. A weak out-of-conference schedule left Texas with little margin for error record-wise during the season.
It’s clear Smart is not married to running the Havoc pressing style that was pivotal to his success at Virginia Commonwealth. It was abundantly clear much earlier than 2020: Smart rationalized a different approach at Texas in his opening press conference.
“For instance, there is way better front court players and there’s way more front court players here at Texas than we’ve typically had at VCU,” Smart said in 2015. “What does that mean? That means those guys have got to get the ball. That means maybe you adjust what you do a little bit to fit those guys strengths.”
If Smart ran 200 proof VCU Havoc at Texas, the odds of him landing Allen, Bamba, and any other of the highly-rated big men lower significantly. Other schools hammered Smart and Texas on the recruiting trail for Havoc and constant pressing despite the diminished utilization of that strategy in Austin.
Smart bet on being able to coach teams that could win playing all-around basketball as opposed to a gimmick defense that wildly was successful at the mid-major level. That bet has not delivered conference championship contention at Texas.
It’s delivered a losing conference record.
Combine Smart’s Big 12 toils to the recent nationally-recognized successes of Baylor, Texas Tech, Houston, and Oklahoma, and Texas not only appears to be falling behind its own standards, but the standards of other programs.
With seven games remaining this season, Texas cannot afford to finish under .500 in conference and may need better results than that to get off of the bubble and into the NCAA field. That includes a three-game stretch versus West Virginia, at Texas Tech, and at Oklahoma.
Texas’ tournament hopes are not yet completely dashed. Regardless, apathy toward the program is approaching high tide. If UT is able to make the tournament, the record will show that Smart reached the NCAA Tournament in the majority of his Austin tenure. It may also net Austin-area five-star forward Greg Brown III.
If he is not able gain his third tournament bid, Texas will once again fall short of top 10 contention under Smart, and an almost $10 million decision that could have longstanding effects on the program will come to Del Conte’s desk.