“Swagger” is one of the most overused words in our language.
Right up there with “cliché” and “Kardashian.”
But sometimes it’s the perfect word to describe where a team wants to go.
When it comes to keeping up with the big boys in college basketball, Texas coach Shaka Smart has made no secret of his desire to see the Longhorns show some signs of their burgeoning confidence. He doesn’t have a finished product, but the Horns are clearly on the upswing when compared with where they were at this point last year.
Shaka wants swagger (there goes that word again).
He keeps pushing for more displays of confidence, not only to cultivate the type of togetherness that can cause special things to happen if the Horns can get on a postseason roll, but also to get them into the type of mental shape needed with the final stretch of the regular-season schedule coming up, starting with Saturday’s rematch with Baylor.
In Tuesday’s win over West Virginia, center Prince Ibeh exhibited some big-man bravado after swatting a shot from Tarik Phillip out of bounds. He stood over Phillip like a 6-11 lion preparing for his next meal. The resulting technical foul wasn’t something Smart approved of, but the message behind Ibeh’s show display was obvious: I’m ready to roll, guys. Who’s with me?
“We love when Prince shows excitement, because it demonstrates how much he cares,” Smart said. “He is the most impactful guy on our team in terms of the way he can affect his teammates. He just demonstrates a level of care and concern about them and the game.”
After big man Cameron Ridley went down with a broken foot two days after Christmas, Smart had to put on his psychologist’s hat because the players were obviously impacted by the reality of having to play a large chunk of the schedule without their best big man.
Texas’ only 1-3 stretch of the season coincided with the immediate aftermath of Ridley’s injury. After losses to Texas Tech and TCU — the latter would count as the lowest point of the season through these eyes — the Horns are 8-3 in conference play, with a real chance to win the Big 12 title.
Playmaking has a lot to do with the Big 12 success but a healthy mentality has helped the team overcome a recent two-game slide, including a loss at Iowa State where the Horns faded down the stretch.
“Sometimes you have a rough game, or take a couple of losses, and it’s hard to bring swagger,” freshman guard Eric Davis said. “That was the biggest thing, to bring energy. Swagger is just energy. That’s all it is.”
We’ll see plenty of emotion Saturday, especially after the Horns went into Waco and gave the Bears the business in what I believe was their most complete performance since the early-season win over North Carolina. They played with plenty of poise and showed the perfect mentality when Ibeh and Baylor big man Rico Gathers got up close and personal on a couple of occasions.
This is a big one, since the winner could break a three-way tie for third place behind Kansas and West Virgina and keep alive a chance to break Kansas’ 11-year run of Big 12 regular-season title. As for the Horns, a 9-5 league mark would be their best since starting 9-3 in 2014.
Swagger has its place, but all the positive reinforcement in the world won’t help if you don’t have that confidence in yourself, the other four guys on the court and the guy standing in the coaching box.
So if clapping incessantly gets streaky guard Tevin Mack going from the perimeter, then clap away.
If Davis needs to hoist a couple of heat-check three-pointers early on to calm down, then Smart is fine with that as long as Davis gives it up on the defensive end.
If Ibeh needs to channel his inner Mutombo after a block … that’s cool too — without the technical, of course.
These are the subtle messages Smart is sending to his players. To go a bit deeper, he understands that outward displays of motion are also seen by opponents. If you’re showing plenty of confidence and giving your opponent the work, then human nature suggests a seed of doubt can be planted in that other huddle.
Smart’s job is to make sure his players can call upon that extra piece of mental toughness against teams capable of sending them home in the postseason.
That’s when we’ll see if this swagger has matured into what every coach strives to develop: Unshakable belief.