Texas head coach Shaka Smart celebrates a 82-58 win over Florida A&M during a NCAA basketball game at the Frank Erwin Center Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. (Stephen Spillman / for AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: A sterner Shaka Smart is driving his Texas men harder — and they need it

Posted November 30th, 2017

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Story highlights
  • Shaka Smart swears he's got better shooters than a year ago, but as he says the stats will determine that.
  • Guard Andrew Jones says the Longhorns need to work harder in the gym to find their rhythm.
  • Smart says Ray Allen once said great shooters are made, not born.

Shaka Smart was hoarse. Really hoarse.

“So you noticed?” he asked the media at the end of his post-game press conference Wednesday night.

Oh yeah.

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So did his slightly shell-shocked Texas basketball team, which got put on verbal notice by its third-year head coach that the effort and performance the Longhorns put on the floor against over-matched Florida A&M was not at all acceptable. Not in any way, shape or championship form. Not if this team wants to put last year’s 11-22 record behind it and bury it for good.

And that’s a good thing, even if the Longhorns did win 82-58 over a 1-8 team.

Smart’s always been a little above the fray in his time in Austin. Engaged but not totally himself. Calm and in control, but maybe too controlled. Kind of feeling his way in this town.

Wednesday night, Smart was authentic, he was angry, he was all in. He was honestly upset.

And he’s going to need to be all of that because he has a talented but flawed 5-2 team that he needs to drive. He has an athletically gifted but young roster that hasn’t learned all the ins and outs of the college game, and he has to coach ‘em hard. Mark Few told him as much in Portland when the Gonzaga coach advised him to run his young horses harder.

So why was Shaka hoarse?

“That’s ’cause I jumped their ass in the locker room. Oh, they listened,” Smart said unapologetically. “I didn’t think we showed the level of competitive maturity we need to have.”

He wanted that known. And he wants it corrected, which is a nice change for a coach who probably has been too soft on his teams. If he wants to win signature games with the Dukes and Gonzagas, he knows he’ll need the whip.

“I think these guys can be good, but we’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “That’s probably the most I’ve yelled at them.”

He’ll learn if they’re hard of hearing or just ready to play hard all the time. He knows he’s got a team with big but hardly limitless potential. It’s still very offensively challenged, as was last season’s team that lost eight of its last nine games. And as they saw Rattlers did at the Erwin Center, these Longhorns are going to see more than their share of zone defenses this winter.

“We were physically overwhelmed,” FAMU coach Robert McCullum said. “They’re a versatile team, and they can impact their game with their length and size.”

They’ll have to to compensate. McCullum threw up a 2-3 zone part of the game out of disrespect for Texas’ perimeter shooting. The Longhorns did shoot a blazing 75 percent in the second half, matching the best single-half output against Oklahoma some 17 years ago, although most were dunks and layups.

Going into this game, Texas ranked last in the Big 12 in three-point percentages and in free-throw accuracy, fairly strong barometers. Texas ranks 327th out of 351 programs with 28 percent accuracy behind the line.

Unless Jase Febres shoots better as he was advertised and Kerwin Roach, Eric Davis and Jacob Young break through, it’s a team that will work inside out and rely heavily on the presence of Mo Bamba, Dylan Osetkowski and Jericho Sims as well as transition buckets and dribble penetration from those guards. Only Andrew Jones has started out strong.

“I wouldn’t say we’re frustrated,” Jones said. “We just need more work, get in the gym and shoot and find our rhythm. We’re not a finished product.”

So can the Longhorns expect to see more zones?

“I’ll be shocked if they won’t,” McCullum said. “People are going to play ‘em zone until they prove otherwise. Hopefully, for their sake, they’ll shoot the ball better. But they have size, which offsets the fact that they don’t shoot the ball well.”

In fact, the first half was so bad, Smart probably wanted Tim Beck fired. Texas missed 11 of its final 12 shots. For the night, Texas hit just four of 19 from behind the line with Jones connecting twice.

Texas missed 13 of its 23 charity tries. That won’t work.

I counted four air balls, including a wide-open trey from Davis in the corner.

All of which amazes — and certainly concerns — Smart to no end.

Asked if great shooters are born or made, he quoted an authority on the subject.

“Ray Allen says they’re made, and he’s as good a shooter as there’s ever been,” Smart said. “He got upset when people said he was blessed or gifted to be a great shooter. ‘No,’ Allen said, ‘I worked harder than everybody else.’ Our guys work hard on their shooting.”

They’ll need to if they hope to go to a different tournament than the NIT as did the 1978 Texas class that was honored Wednesday night on the 40th anniversary of opening night at the Erwin Center.

Velvety point guard Johnny Moore hit the very first shot in the building four decades ago. In the years since, we’ve been wowed by sharpshooters like A.J. Abrams, Travis Mays and Kevin Durant. There isn’t a pure shooter in Smart’s bunch, but he’s got charts up in his office that say point guard Matt Coleman can hit 90-plus threes in the drills where players launch 100 uncontested ones. Elijah Mitrou-Long, a junior transfer from Mount St. Mary’s sitting out this season, is almost as accurate.

Most of the rest of Smart’s guards can hit 80 or more, which gives him hope, although a coaching buddy of his, Fordham’s Jeff Neubauer, insists players left alone need to make at least 90 of them.

“I believe we’re a lot better shooting team than we’ve shown,” Smart said. “But it’s not what you believe or say. It’s what the stats say.”

Those stats say Texas still can’t shoot straight. We’ll see, come February. And if the Longhorns’ shooting numbers don’t improve? Well, Shaka’s going to be reaching for more throat lozenges.

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