The Texas Longhorns were struggling to win basketball games this time last year. They were 10-2 heading into conference play and ranked as high as No. 22 at one point early in the season. But once conference play started, the team went on a shocking 4-9 run — including four losses in a row in February. Many coaches inside the industry thought it’d be Shaka Smart’s last year in Austin.
“There were a lot of rumors swirling around that there were about to be a few openings available at the University of Texas at the end of January last year,” a high-major assistant told Yahoo Sports.
Sitting at 14-11 in the middle of February, Texas was the definition of a bubble team. Then the Longhorns went on a five-game win streak to close out the season that may have saved Smart and his staff. The Longhorns only lost one senior and added top-10 recruit Greg Brown to the team.
Recruiting has never been an issue for Smart at Texas. He’s done an exceptional job — particularly in landing tall, athletic bigs. In the past five years he’s had two lottery picks in Mohamed Bamba and Jaxson Hayes, and both Jarrett Allen and Myles Turner went in the first round. Those are solid numbers when you’re trying to recruit top players, but it wasn’t helping Texas win games.
When Texas hired Smart from VCU, there were questions on if he could be successful at a Power Five, high-major school the same way he did at VCU. In 2011, the Rams made a historic run to the Final Four thanks to a defense that wreaked havoc on opponents and had a couple players in Jamie Skeen and Bradford Burgess who shot consistently from 3-point range. Smart became the hottest coach on the scene after that run and it didn’t take Texas long to hire him as its new head coach. The Shaka Smart era had tentatively begun.
“It was such a big step for Shaka and we all knew he would succeed there. No one knew how long it would take though,” one Big 12 head coach told Yahoo Sports.
The answer is six years. It has taken six years. The Longhorns are now the No. 4 team in the nation and are one of the most athletic teams in college basketball. This is the first time Texas has been in the top five since 2011. The Longhorns made a statement early in the season winning the Maui Invitational — which was actually held in Asheville, North Carolina — after senior guard Matt Coleman hit a jump shot from the elbow with one second left to defeat North Carolina, 69-67.
“We told our guys when we came in here and we saw the banners and we said, ‘There's no Texas on these banners,” Smart said after the win. “Texas isn't up there and you guys have a chance to win a championship and it will be on that banner for the rest of time as long as the Maui Invitational is played."
Texas’ biggest win came on Jan. 2 at Allen Fieldhouse when they faced No. 3 Kansas. The Longhorns handed the Jayhawks their biggest defeat ever in Lawrence when they won easily, 84-59. Kansas never led once during the game and struggled to find an answer to the backcourt play of upperclassmen Courtney Ramey, Matt Coleman and Andrew Jones. Defensively it was the presence in the lane of senior forward Jericho Sims that was the difference maker.
“I thought he was the most important player in the game,” Smart said following the win. “Jericho was our defensive anchor. The way he rebounded really set a tone for us.”
As deep and experienced as Texas’ backcourt is, they are just as deep in the frontcourt. Sims and sophomore Kai Jones are long, athletic and great shot blockers. Jones is 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and Sims stands at 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan. Also getting solid minutes as a swing-four player is 6-foot-9 freshman Greg Brown, who already had one of the best dunks in college basketball early in the season.
This is easily Smart’s best team since arriving at Texas and could also be the most talented group of players in his 21-year coaching career. It is essentially the same group of players from last year but guys like Jones and Ramey are way more productive on the court this season. Jones looks more comfortable in the offense and is already seeing more minutes from his freshman year. He’s now averaging 9 points per game, which is a huge improvement from his 3.6 point per game last season. Ramey is shooting an impressive 44% from 3-point range this season after only shooting 31% last year.
“He is truly one of a kind,” Smart said of Ramey. “The thing I respect most about him is that he doesn’t have a bone in his body that’s not 100% about winning.”
Texas is now an 11-to-1 favorite to win the national championship, per BetMGM. Smart could return to the Final Four for the first time in 10 years. Texas hasn’t made the Final Four since 2003 and has never won the championship.
It is still early and the Big 12 is packed with talented teams. Baylor, Kansas, Texas Tech and West Virginia are all ranked in the Top 25. Texas will have its toughest stretch of games coming up as it’ll play at No. 13 West Virginia on Saturday and host No. 18 Texas Tech on Jan. 13. The Longhorns have already shown everyone what they can do against a tough Kansas team — a rematch awaits, as well as a showdown with No. 2 Baylor in early February.
If this season has proved anything it’s that a balance of older, experienced talent mixed with a couple star recruits is the way to win games. No. 1 Gonzaga has it with star freshman Jalen Suggs and the supporting cast of upperclassmen and Texas has it with Brown and six seniors. Smart has stayed the course and been patient building the program at Texas and, after six seasons, it’s finally paying off in a huge way.
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