By all accounts, the 2020-21 Texas basketball season is as make-or-break as they come for Shaka Smart.
Entering Year 6 in Austin this fall, the once home-run hire out of VCU is hoping to salvage a supremely underwhelming Longhorn tenure. Texas has yet to win a March Madness game under Smart, and time is quickly running out.
To contextualize just how important results are this season for Smart and co., consider this: No Texas coach has ever lasted more than six years without an NCAA Tournament win.
There is little reason why this year’s team should fail. Returning Longhorn players make up 99.9 percent of the minutes from the ’19-20 team. And to make the roster even stronger, Smart’s staff landed 5-star forward Greg Brown in April, the No. 6-rated commit in program history.
On paper, this is as good as it gets in college basketball. But growing skepticism towards Smart has many wondering if Texas can live up to the hype.
The national opinion on Smart’s coaching chops has shifted dramatically over the years. With VCU, Smart implemented a signature “Havoc” defense, oriented around on-ball pressure, trapping, endurance and transition baskets. The Rams reached March Madness five consecutive years under Smart and his defense, highlighted by 2011’s Final Four run as a No. 11 play-in seed. With Texas, however, this style is nowhere to be seen, and the results leave plenty to be desired.
“The style of play we will employ here at Texas will be one that’s extremely exciting,” Smart said during his introductory press conference in 2015. “We’re going to play fast-paced basketball; we’re going to be very aggressive. For those of you that have seen our team play in the past, you know we like to press. We like to play aggressively.”
Stylistically, Smart’s VCU and Texas teams are nothing alike. The Ram teams cashed in easy points off turnovers, using its defense to create offense. This is a complete contrast of Shaka’s Longhorn teams that are content slowing things down and contesting shot attempts.
Overall, defensive efficiency marks between Shaka’s Texas and VCU teams are almost a wash. In fact, Shaka’s defensive field-goal percentage with Texas (42.3 percent) is slightly better than what it was with VCU (43.4 percent). Given a heightened importance towards shot contests instead of turnovers, this isn’t all that surprising.
Where did things change?
It’s unclear what exactly prompted the change in strategy. Smart’s inherited roster from Rick Barnes ranked No. 4 nationally in opponent field-goal percentage but was a dismal 351st (out of 352 teams) in opponent turnover rate. Instead of instinctive guards who forced turnovers, Smart’s first Texas squad was built inside-out. Big men Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh — listed 6-9/285 and 6-10/260, respectively — were the team’s best defenders, combining to average 4.8 blocks per game.
But instead of returning to “Havoc,” Smart’s teams continued the halfcourt battle. The ’16-17 roster was a mess, finishing last in the Big 12 due to inexperience and inconsistent play. Points off turnovers could have significantly helped the Texas offense that ranked 177th in efficiency and was 345th nationally in 3-point percentage at 29.2 percent.
Capable jump shooters have been a rare find during Smart’s Texas tenure, making the “Havoc” divorce even more puzzling. The past five Longhorns teams have ranked 205th, 345th, 321st, 154th and 173rd nationally in 3-point percentage. An aggressive defense leading to layups and free throws would be hugely beneficial to Texas’ overall efficiency given the poor shooting. Instead, most defensive pressure is reserved for the final minutes of the game when the Longhorns are trailing.
So what happens at the fork in the road?
It should be noted that Texas can be a complete team this season even if it doesn’t return to Shaka’s “Havoc” days. Guards Andrew Jones, Matt Coleman and Jase Febres all shot over 37 percent from deep last season and should benefit by the spacing created through Brown’s interior presence. The Longhorns defense should once again be top-25 caliber, largely due to size, athleticism and a bevy of shot blockers.
If things do go awry, though, Smart needs to consider reinstalling the pressure defense. He may never have a more talented team in his career, and everyone knows that the clock is ticking to right the ship. Late-season momentum provided Smart another season to prove himself. With the band back together and a new star in tow, it’s now or never for Smart no matter how he gets it done.
Eli Boettger is a college basketball writer and founder of HeatCheckCBB.com. He has previously worked for Sporting News, DAZN and USA TODAY SMG.
Boettger’s content has been featured by Bleacher Report, NBC Sports, FiveThirtyEight, Yahoo Sports, Athletic Director University, Washington Post, Illinois Law Review and Notre Dame Law Review, among other publications. Boettger is also a current USBWA member and Rockin’ 25 voter.