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The hallowed hoops hall of Rupp Arena awaits the arrival of the No. 5 Texas Longhorns this Saturday in Lexington, Ky. Four national championship teams and six other Final Four squads have called one of the cathedrals of college basketball home.
When the Longhorns travel to Lexington this weekend, they may enter the arena with an acting head coach in Shaka Smart’s place due to COVID-19.
Smart announced Monday he tested positive for COVID-19 and was self-isolating. KT Turner, UT’s associate head coach, moved into Smart’s seat for the Longhorns’ Tuesday loss to No. 24 Oklahoma. Turner nearly guided Texas to a come-from-behind victory without starters Jericho Sims and Courtney Ramey.
After the game, Turner was asked if he anticipated having to call the shots at Kentucky.
“Right now, we’re just taking it one day at a time,” Turner said. “There’s a lot of protocol that goes with that. One day at a time right now.”
If Turner has to act as head coach on Saturday, several factors are in his favor. Kentucky is 5-10, a historically awful record for the winningest program in Division I basketball history. UK is 4-4 in the SEC, a conference currently with only one top 10 team. John Calipari’s team has lost at home to Richmond, Notre Dame, and No. 9 Alabama.
Texas still has most of its top six players in Greg Brown, Andrew Jones, Matt Coleman, and Kai Jones. Also, Turner will not face a college basketball blueblood on the road in his head coaching debut. Before Tuesday, Turner’s resume did not include any games as a head coach. Now, he has a single game of experience under his belt.
“I think he was very poised,” Kai Jones said of Turner’s coaching effort. “We didn’t get the outcome that we wanted, but I think Coach KT did a great job of just being poised and leading us, being a positive voice but also being an honest voice.”
Not every single thing is in Texas’ favor. The status of Ramey and Sims is uncertain. Brock Cunningham, who was on Texas’ bench but not dressed to play Tuesday, is no guarantee to be available Saturday. Though Rupp Arena won’t have it’s normal 20,000+ fans, just over 3000 will be on hand for the Big 12/SEC Challenge contest.
Plus, Smart is still in isolation following his positive test. A coach and program that values family and playing as a connected unit is temporarily without its leader due to the coronavirus.
Turner said he communicated often with Smart via texts, phone calls, and FaceTime. They studied film together ahead of the OU loss and discussed how they wanted to play on defense. On the bench Tuesday, Turner just tried to coach how he thought his boss would.
“I really just try to manage Coach Smart’s things that he’s instilled in us,” Turner said. “I just manage the things that he tells us the days leading up. I just tried to get the guys to practice hard.”
The fact that Turner even had to act as head coach is indicative of the craziness of the 2020-21 season. Questioning whether Texas should even play down its head coach and two starters seems reasonable. Traveling to Kentucky in light of the current absences and protocols could be scrutinized, too.
But as Coleman explained, it’s part of the experience of this season. It’s why Smart, Turner, and the rest of the coaching staff have repeatedly emphasized gratitude at the opportunity to even play the game they love.
“It’s a nationwide thing,” Coleman said. “We are living through it. Pandemic times are different. When it comes to basketball, it’s different, but it’s not just different for the University of Texas. It’s different for every collegiate team.”
With the game on as scheduled, Texas must prepare for a trip to play the Wildcats.
Texas’ acting head coach may not have more than a game of experience calling the shots, but when Turner explained post-OU what his plans were in the coming days, his answer proved he has coach-speak down.
“We’ve got a lot of things we need to work on,” Turner said. “We’re going to break the film down tonight and tomorrow, and there’s a lot of value in it.”
Saturday will test whether his extremely limited head coaching acumen can help UT to an important road win.
Cover photo from Triple Tri/Flickr