Heartbeat of the Heartland: Shaka Smart, Longhorns Struggling in “Unforgiving” Big 12

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You can ask Charlie Strong if the patience of Texas fans exceeds three seasons. Shaka Smart is fortunate he’s the school’s basketball coach.

Year Three of the Smart Era and Longhorns hoops resembles UT football – talented enough to tease but not please (three league losses in OT). Following Monday night’s 74-73 double overtime loss at home to Baylor, Smart’s record at UT is 46-46. Following what appeared to be a momentum-building upset of Oklahoma on Feb. 3, Texas has lost three in a row and is now 15-11 overall and 5-8 in the Big 12.

Following the Big Monday loss, no players were available for interviews. Instead they were holding a players-only meeting in the team’s practice facility. Smart was asked in his post-game press conference if the Longhorns are in a free fall.

“We’ve lost three straight games,” he said. “We need to find a way to win our next game. You (media) will label it whatever you want to label it. This league is very unforgiving.”

If an 8-10 Big 12 record is a prerequisite for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth, then the Longhorns must win three of these games – at Oklahoma, at Kansas State, Oklahoma State, at Kansas and West Virginia. Should Texas miss sit out March Madness, it will be the first time in 30 years it has missed out in consecutive seasons.

What’s galling for UT fans is that the three losses have come against Kansas State, TCU and Baylor – three teams in UT’s neighborhood in the standings. But instead of besting equals, Texas came up short. Saturday’s 87-71 blowout loss at TCU was especially exasperating.

“I don’t think they’re playing with the weight of the (NCAA Tournament) on their shoulders, but they’re playing with a heaviness about them,” Smart said after the TCU game. “At the same time this is what we all signed up for, this is big-boys basketball. Opponents are tough. The last two teams we played (TCU and Kansas State), they played with a sense of desperation about them. They had to go get the game. Everybody in this league is fighting, is scrapping.”

The pride of the Burnt Orange Nation is bruised and battered because their money-printing athletic department produces profits but little success in the major sports of football and men’s basketball.

In the last decade, the Longhorns haven’t reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Former coach Rick Barnes, who is proving he still has plenty of fuel in his coaching tank, was replaced by Smart three seasons ago. At the time, it was considered a coup and an upgrade even if Smart was unproven at the Power Five level.

The Horns made the NCAA Tournament in Smart’s first season as he was coaching a mismatched roster of Barnes leftovers and newcomers recruited by the new coach in town. Smart’s record also comes with a footnote of misfortune. All three of his teams have lost their leading scorers – Cam Ridley (foot injury) in 2015-16, Tevin Mack (suspended and transferred) in 2016-17 and this season sophomore Andrew Jones was diagnosed with leukemia just over a month ago.

When five-star recruit Mo Bamba announced he would play his one-and-done season at Texas, it was a major recruiting get for Smart’s program. Last season’s 11-22 record was largely attributable to lacking a point guard. Freshman Matt Coleman was the solution. With Coleman running the offense and Bamba patrolling the paint, there were high hopes for improvement.

But freshmen point guards not named Trae Young struggle to play consistently in the Big 12. Smart starts three freshmen and doesn’t have a senior in his playing rotations. Some would call that reasons for inconsistent play, others would call those excuses.

Smart was angry at his team’s defensive effort at TCU. Monday night against Baylor, the failure was rebounding (Baylor with a 46-34 edge, including the game-winning basket on a follow dunk) and 3-point shooting (3-of-19). Only 30 Division I teams shoot a worse percentage from three than UT.

New Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte won’t make a coaching change after this season. But the school is about to start construction on a new basketball facility. That new facility needs to have a basketball program challenging for the Big 12 title, not scrambling to remain on the right side of the NCAA bubble.

While Charlie Strong only got three seasons, Shaka Smart will almost certainly get four. But if this team doesn’t pull a 180, the 2018-19 season will be a crucible for Smart. Steak must replace sizzle and it needs to happen quickly.

Cowboy up

When Brad Underwood left for Illinois after just one season as Oklahoma State’s coach, athletic director Mike Holder made the surprising decision to promote associate head coach Mike Boynton. As it turns out, Holder made a wise choice (wiser still that he didn’t make the outside-the-box-hire and give the job to former Cowboys point guard and media talker Doug Gottlieb).

On consecutive Saturdays, Oklahoma State has won at Kansas and at West Virginia. That means that Boynton has won on the home court of teams coached by a Hall of Famer (Bill Self) and a future Hall of Famer (Bob Huggins).

Those victories have the Cowboys on the NCAA Tournament bubble. And that’s much better than anyone thought was possible. Add in the fact that before the season the program lost associate head coach Lamont Evans, who was fired after being charged with fraud and bribery in the headline-making FBI probe.

“There was no expectation for this season, or on how we could do, because everyone thought I was going to suck as a coach,” Boynton told CBSSports.com. “The team’s had to deal with a lot of things and twists, a lot of distractions with the FBI,” Boynton said. “I give a lot of credit to them, and the staff. We have done our best handling the things we could control. … We’ve had a lot of moving parts this year, man. I think the story of this team is how they’ve overcome adversity and eliminated distractions outside the program.”

Tip ins

  • In Kansas’ last three games, (a win over TCU and losses to Oklahoma State and Baylor), those teams made 59.7 percent from 3-point range while Jayhawks shot 28.3 percent. KU has been outscored 120-63 from behind the arc in those three games.
  • Kansas fans spent the first half of the season hoping for the cavalry to ride to the rescue, hoping for eligibility for Billy Preston and Silvio DeSousa. Half of the troops showed up as Preston left for a European pro deal after being blocked by the NCAA. DeSousa graduated high school early and joined the team in early January. However, the 6-9 forward hasn’t earned Bill Self’s trust. In eight games, he’s played a total of 19 minutes, scoring one basket with eight rebounds and six turnovers.
  • Kansas State’s Octagon of Doom hasn’t changed but its effect on visiting teams has. From 2006-15, the Wildcats were 58-18 in Big 12 home games. That includes Bruce Weber’s first three seasons in Manhattan. But in the last 24 home games, K-State is 11-13.
  • West Virginia had won back-to-back games to regain some traction – until Saturday. Oklahoma State stunned the Mountaineers, 88-85. The Cowboys went 30-of-36 from the free throw line – the most free throw attempts by a WVU opponent in the Coliseum since 2010. Bob Huggins wasn’t happy. “It’s hard to guard them at the foul line,” he said. Huggins also bemoaned the lack of consistency. “I’m just at a loss to explain why you’re allowed to have your hands on a cutter,” he said. “It’s freedom of movement. Why are you allowed to have your hands on a cutter, but you can’t touch the guy with the ball? To me, that should be the same. Freedom of movement is freedom of movement any way you talk about it.”
  • Iowa State will likely finish in last place this season. But the Cyclones have a potentially bright future. Redshirt freshman Cameron Lard was named the Big 12 Newcomer of the Week and in conference play is averaging 17 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. If freshman Lindell Wiggington decides to return for his sophomore season, Iowa State will have two outstanding youngsters for next season. Wiggington is second among Big 12 freshmen in scoring average at 16.3. That’s on pace to set the school freshman scoring average record held by Curtis Stinson.

Trash talk

Baylor’s Nuni Omot after the Bears’ 80-64 victory over Kansas Saturday:

“You need to have lead by 10 over the last three minutes. Otherwise if it was a close lead, they would have started getting some calls just because, you know, that’s Kansas … and they get all the calls.”