Texas head coach Shaka Smart and teammates comes over to injuryed Longhorn Jaxson Hayes during the Big 12 quarterfinals at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri on Thursday, March 14, 2019. [RYAN WEAVER/FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Another close loss leaves Smart, Longhorns feeling hollow

Posted March 15th, 2019

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Story highlights
  • After four seasons, Shaka Smart has a mediocre 66-66 record but could see his team accept a bid to the NIT on Sunday night.
  • When asked about Smart's job security, Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte said, "That’s crazy. … That’s ludicrous talk when we start talking about that stuff in the middle of the season."
  • With a 16-16 record and a loss in its first and only Big 12 Tournament game, the Longhorns lost any realistic chance to get an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — At best, it’d be nice to report that Texas has a 50-50 chance to get in the NCAA Tournament.

Unfortunately, that’s not possible for the Longhorns because their season record is, well, 50-50.

Come to think of it, so are Shaka Smart’s career numbers since he arrived in Austin four years ago. The coach I dubbed Coach Fitty is sitting squarely on that same .500 percentage as a highly disappointing season comes crashing down close to an end after a stinging, 65-57 loss to Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals Thursday night and leaves the under-performing head coach with a mediocre 66-66 mark.

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Win some, lose some.

That should be Texas’ new slogan, moving forward.

And maybe it’ll win again in the post-season, but only Texas’ glass-half-brimming athletic director, a respectful Kansas coach Bill Self, a  few die-hard Longhorn fans and Bevo think this team has any realistic shot of crashing the NCAA party with a dead-even 16-16 record. No other team in the history of college basketball can claim such an achievement, but hey, a 16 seed won last year for the first time ever and B-level actresses may be going to prison for academic fraud, so I guess anything is possible.

“I can make a case for Texas because I really think Texas is one of the more talented teams in our league, without question,” Self said. “Shaka hasn’t had some great luck in some games. It seems like to me that’s kinda bit them a little bit. But from a talent standpoint, nobody is going to want to see Texas when they’re in the tournament. I think they’re positively a tournament team.”

Of course, he didn’t specify which tournament.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, who had been pushing Texas’ chances the hardest the last two weeks, suddenly listed Texas among the first four teams out. CBS’s Jerry Palm hadn’t been big on the Longhorns for some time and had no mention of the Longhorns as even having a glimmer of hope.

If you’re expecting to read that Smart will be fired soon, you’re probably out of luck. Smart’s been out of luck too, given all his close defeats, but he’s expected to keep his job for next season with four years remaining on his contract and a hefty, almost $13 million buyout to make a change. Texas should probably pull the trigger on a change for the clear lack of positive momentum, but almost certainly  will not.

“I won’t comment on Shaka,” a testy Del Conte said late Thursday night after sitting in on Smart’s post-game press conference. “It’s right in the middle of the season. That’s crazy. … That’s ludicrous talk when we start talking about that stuff in the middle of the season.”

Uh, middle? Not exactly. He might have a few NIT games left, but we passed middle in January.

But give Del Conte credit. He’s stuck to his guns of not addressing his coach’s job security throughout this troubling season, and it’s well known that he admires Smart for his integrity and his concern for his players. There’s no denying Smart is a morally upright and good man, but fans are more than unhappy with the scoreboard.

He’s been just good enough to lose close games to good teams, an occasional Radford or Oklahoma State notwithstanding.

When a clear-cut, efficient offensive plan is lacking, when Smart and his staff have struggled to evaluate, recruit or develop shooters, when the defense has been good but not Havoc-good, when it appears he will have had three first-round NBA draft picks (if freshman center Jaxson Hayes goes pro this spring) and not a single NCAA Tournament victory to show for them, there remains only his one obvious trademark quality the last four years:

They’ll fight to the end, and they’ll play hard. But they’ll lose as many as they win.

In all likelihood, the NCAA selection committee will recognize Texas’ strong wins over conference champions North Carolina, Purdue and Kansas State but will not award the Longhorns a participation ribbon. Probably Texas will have to participate in the 32-team NIT, “the other tournament.” And Del Conte said the school “certainly” would accept an invitation, if offered by that B-flight tournament.

Texas didn’t win at the Sprint Center before a sold-out crowd of 18,927 even though senior center Dylan Osetkowski played one of his best games as a Longhorn. The thought of ending his career without a single NCAA Tournament game appeared to haunt him.

“It’s out of our control now,” a downcast Osetkowski said. “Every basketball game comes down to one or two possessions. I hope the committee makes the right decision.”

Texas probably made it for them. Osetkowski’s strong performance, coupled with Jase Febres’ three treys and one of Jericho Sims’ better games, came on a night when Hayes was limited to just 14 minutes as well as two points and had two rebounds before being helped off the court with a knee injury of undetermined severity and when tandem guards Kerwin Roach II and Matt Coleman III did not play well at all.

In a game Texas absolutely had to win, it didn’t. In a matchup with a Kansas team that it beat once and darn near beat on the road, Texas almost beat the Jayhawks again, trailing late by four with almost three minutes left, but missed its last six shots. Alas, Texas is the king of almosts.

The Longhorns had a chance to played their way into the NCAA tournament, too, but fell short again with a third straight loss. Texas, under Smart, has pretty much patented the close loss and has to leave him with a hollow feeling.

“That’s one description of it,” Smart said. “Hollow.”

Texas fans know the feeling.

RELATED: Kansas 65, Texas 57: Longhorns’ season isn’t over, but this sure felt like a funeral

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