Texas’ first- year coach Shaka Smart took his time before deciding on his future.
He was the one of the two hot young coaches in the country along with Brad Stevens of Butler when he took upstart Virginia Commonwealth, who received an at late at large bid, on a magical journey from the First Four to the NCAA Final Four in 2011, beating five major conference teams along the way. Stevens was also in Houston that year, coaching Butler to a second consecutive Final Four.
Stevens eventually moved on to coach the NBA Boston Celtics in 2013. Virginia Commonwealth knew they had found someone special in Smart, a magna cum laude graduate of academic giant Kenyon College who was the recipient of an NCAA post graduate scholarship. They went out of their way to make him happy, cutting him an eight-year deal that increased his salary from $350,000 to $1.2 million.
The 38-year old Smart stayed at the Richmond, Va. commuter school for four more years, coaching the Rams to an average of 26 victories and four NCAA appearances. His teams played before capacity crowds of 8,000 at the Siegel Center. He received total support from two different Athletic Directors Norwood Teague and Ed McLaughlin who allowed him to maintain a low key lifestyle with his family and he was able to recruit NBA caliber players to a school that made the successful transition from the Colonial Athletic Association to the Atlantic 10.
Smart was happy there. He was constantly besieged with calls from bigger programs, but turned down offers to talk with marquee programs like UCLA, North Carolina State, Maryland, Wake Forest, University of Southern California, Illinois and Marquette.
Then Texas made him an offer he couldn’t refuse last spring.– a seven year deal worth $3 million a year, with six years guarantees, a state of the art practice facility and an unlimited resources and a talent rich state to recruit in. “It was a no brainer,” he recalled during his press conference. “I don’t want to take away from any other program, but there is only one University of Texas. There is unbelievable potential here.”
The Longhorns had been successful under previous coach Rick Barnes, who coached the Longhorns to 16 NCAA appearances in 17 years and leading them to a Final Four in 2003 with point guard T.J. Ford and 6-10 forward LaMarcus Aldridge. He also recruited and coached forward Kevin Durant, an 18-year old prodigy, to every major Player of the Year award during the 2007 season, his only year on campus.
But new Texas AD Steve Patterson felt the program had stagnated with too many first round exits, and thought it needed a jolt of adrenaline and a new voice.
Smart was a natural. He has grad school intelligence, is immediately likable and has the personality and passion to relate to his players. He has shown he can motivate and and is destined to be one of the next great coaches in modern college basketball.
But less than a year after he was hired, he was moving into uncharted waters after Patterson and president Bill Powers, who signed off on the hire, were no longer employed by the university. He has navigated them well enough to earn consideration for national Coach of the Year.
Smart inherited a group of solid, experienced Big 12 players from Barnes who had high expectations in 2015 but never lived up to them. Smart has coached them up, infusing them with new found confidence and getting career best seasons from senior guard Javan Felix and junior guard Isaiah Taylor. Smart has also developed a rapidly improving front line that has eased the loss of 6-10 Cameron Ridley, one of the country’s best big men, by plugging 6-10 senior shot blocker Prince Ibeh, who is on the NBA radar, into that spot, which has made 6-9 senior shooter Connor Lambert more effective.
Smart signed a promising freshman class of guards Eric Davis Jr., Kerwin Roach Jr. and forward Tevin Mack this year. Davis and Roach should be future stars in this league. But they are only the start of the assembly line. Texas is on the verge of signing a potential Top 10 class if he can get 6-10 McDonald’s All American Jarrett Allen from Stephen Episcopal in Houston, who grew up in Austin and has been a frequent visitor to campus; to go with 6-4 McDonald’s All American guard Chris Jones from Irving, Tex. MacArthur and 6-11 Top 100 big man James Banks from La Lumiere, Ind. School.
There is no ceiling at Texas, which has traditionally been a football school.
The Longhorns experience a month of transition, losing twice in the Battle 4 Atlantis in Bahamas before stunning Carolina. Then, after a 1-2 start in the Big 12 with losses to Texas Tech and TCU, they began to find their way and “Shaka the nation.” The Longhorns (19-10) is 10-6 in the country’s toughest conference and have defeated North Carolina, West Virginia, Iowa State, Baylor and most recently Oklahoma. They are the only team in Division I with wins over four Top 10 teams and are moving up the seed charts as we speak.
The Longhorns defeated the then third-ranked Sooners, 76-63, last Saturday before a sellout crowd of 16,540 at the Erwin Center in Austin and was another showcase for the 6-3 Taylor who scored 18 points, had 5 assists and was in the middle of a 22-0 run the ts the Longhorns went on a 22-0 second half run Saturday that turned a competitive game into a blowout. It was the Longhorns’ first win over the Sooners after five straight losses in the basketball version of the Red River rivalry.
The normally introverted Smart fueled the crowd before the game when he told them before the game, “OU sucks.”
“I’ve learned from coaching that you’re got to be outgoing when the time demands it,” Smart said. “Mack Brown texted me at 7:55 this morning that OU still sucks.”
Taylor is the poster child for what Smart has accomplished with this team. He was born in Hayward, Calif. and moved to Houston and enrolled at the Village School prior to his junior season in high school. He comes from good genes. His uncle Terrell Lowery played basketball for the high scoring Loyola Marymount program from 1989-92 that advanced to the Regional finals of the 1990 NCAA tournament. Taylor was considered one of the top 15 prospects in the state when he signed with Texas. He has been a three year starter and was selected third team All Big 12 as a sophomore.
Last year, he missed 10 games with a broken wrist and the team struggled without him. He seriously considered putting his name in the draft but eventually had second thoughts because he wanted to play for Smart. This year, he has developed into a leader Smart needed and become Texas’ most clutch player, emerging as an NBA prospect that could be a No. 1 pick and a Big 12 Player of the Year candidate if he stays through his senior year.
Smart has fit his system to his personnel. The team plays fast offense but is disciplined defensively. It plays more constant and contest defense that the Havoc style he popularized at VCU, according to ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg.
Smart built his coaching reputation at VCU with suffocating intense full court pressure defense after made basketball to disrupt opponent’s timing in offensive sets. “We are going to wreak havoc on our opponents psyche and their plan of attack,” he said at his introductory press conference at VCU. The Rams ranked first nationally in both turnovers and steals forced per possession from 2011 through 2014. His defensive philosophy was perfect for USA Basketball and Smart was selected to coach with Billy Donovan, his former boss at Florida, on the 2013 17-and-under team that won the World Championship in Prague.