Shaka Smart is trying to get rid of any belief that tradition and name recognition can help his Longhorns win a basketball game.
“There’s a little bit of a notion that we’re Texas and it just happens. It doesn’t happen,” Smart said. “You have to go out and attack it and take the game.”
Texas has some nice pieces. Javan Felix is a willing shooter from the perimeter but can be streakier than Frank the Tank. Big man Cameron Ridley has been plagued by disappearing spells over the years. Stretch four Connor Lammert has talent, but sometimes has to be reminded of his capability. And then there’s point guard Isaiah Taylor, the most accomplished Longhorn, but next to Ridley, the most enigmatic.
Shaka wants two or three alpha dogs on this team who play like they might be cut any day. Probably not a whole team of them, because that would make for one bloody doghouse. But a few to pick up the slack when things aren’t going well.
Taylor is the closest on the roster to being a full-grown alpha dog. He’s shown a willingness to take the big shot, though it should be mentioned that being an alpha dog doesn’t automatically make you a clutch player. Taylor has had some dubious misses from the free throw line with games on the line.
Smart actually had to implore Taylor to be more aggressive during Tuesday’s 80-73 win over UT-Arlington, indicating that the point guard is still finding his way in this offense. He scored all of his 21 points in the second half, including 17 trips to the free throw line, a sure sign that he was in attack mode.
Texas needs more of that second-half Taylor to make this offense go. Smart understands there isn’t a Kevin Durant on this roster, but that’s not the point. This isn’t about superstars. It’s about mindset. Smart wants lions, not kittens. He wants bump-and-run corners instead of guys playing a soft two-deep zone because they’re afraid to get beat deep.
“You can’t play not to lose,” Smart said. “You can’t play with that heaviness. In the arena (against UT-Arlington) there was a heavy feeling of ‘OK, uh-oh, what’s going to happen?’ I think Snoop’s dunk helped with that. It definitely got some people going in the crowd and certainly on our team.”
Snoop is freshman Kerwin Roach Jr., a high flyer whose first-half dunk took the roof off the gym while making Mavericks forward Jorge Bilbao an unwilling co-star on a poster coming to you real soon. It would have easy to swoop in for a finger roll, but to make the Big 12 logo just inside the lane your launching point before sending home the best slam Club Erwin has seen in years? That was some alpha dog stuff.
Smart is fine with using the first few weeks of the season to instill his philosophy of intelligent aggression, but it’s obvious that he’s not pleased with a certain tentativeness that has descended upon his team in several games already.
Tuesday’s win was a great learning tool because the team overcame Taylor’s early struggles that trickled down to Ridley, who was unable to get quality touches against a packed-in zone.
Ever the psychologist, Smart passive-aggressively gave his team permission to lose by saying, “If you lose, you don’t die.”
The games will get harder — North Carolina, Kansas and the Oklahoma schools are on the way — and this is a good opportunity for a potential sleeping dog to wake up. Roach has already shown that potential. The other freshmen — Tevin Mack and Eric Davis, Jr. — should be emboldened by their coach’s words.
The message is simple. Shaka would rather see his players fail by fearlessly but smartly playing with the pedal to the metal than squeaking by and winning while wearing a straitjacket. The first way has a bigger upside. The other stifles potential growth.
“Everyone needs to relax and understand,” Smart said. “This is a process that we’re trying to build, a mentality, and it’s on us as players and coaches to build that and get better.”
The great philosopher Jimmy Johnson once said, “Scared money don’t win.” Smart would agree with that assessment. That’s why he’s out to eliminate fear in all facets of Texas basketball: On the floor, on his bench, in the stands.