Cedric Golden

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Golden: Shaka has Texas still breathing ahead of Saturday’s pivotal matchup in Lubbock

Posted February 26th, 2020

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Story highlights
  • After a 67-57 win over West Virginia, Texas is still breathing when it comes to NCAA Tourney contention.
  • Texas (17-11, 7-8 Big 12) has won three straight Big 12 games for just the second time in Smart's tenure.
  • Texas, Oklahoma and West Virginia are in a three-place tie for fourth place in the Big 12.

Still breathing.

Somehow.

Don’t count out the Texas men just yet. With three games remaining in the regular season, the narrative has changed from Texas being so bad that they wouldn’t even warrant invitations to the lesser postseason tournaments to now having a pulse.

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Still breathing entering Saturday’s road test at up-and-down Texas Tech, and that means Shaka Smart has actually extracted a couple of nails from his creaky coaching coffin. He spent much of the second half Monday night on one knee against West Virginia and it wasn’t because he was begging for win.

Texas’ Andrew Jones (left) passes the ball to Courtney Ramey during Monday night’s win over West Virginia. (Lola Gomez/American-Statesman)

No, Smart was pounding his palm against the court, imploring his team to buckle down and play with tough-minded focus on defense, this against a West Virginia crew that had handed Texas the most embarrassing loss of his tenure.

Give the Horns credit. No one imagined that they would be sitting at 17-11 overall and 7-8 in Big 12 play a couple of weeks ago after concluding a horrible a 2-7 stretch with a soul-taking 82-51 loss to a sub .500 Iowa State team in Ames.

Texas packing it in seemed certain, especially after guard Jase Febres and power forward Jericho Sims went down with injuries. But an edge has emerged through all the heartache and letdowns.

The players have surprised Longhorn Nation by coming together and it could be because they finally realized they’re playing for something much bigger than a spot in the Big Dance. Their head coach’s livelihood is on the line. No one, probably even Shaka himself, will blame athletic director Chris Del Conte for giving Shaka the gate — he’s 88-77 overall 37-49 in conference games — if the Horns fail to make the NCAAs for the third time in his five seasons. Smart understands the expectations here.

Texas head coach Shaka Smart signals to his players during the first half against West Virginia, Monday.  (Eric Gay/The Associated Press)

The Horns aren’t going away quietly. They beat the Mountaineers 67-57 and notched a third straight Big 12 win for the only the second time in Smart’s four-plus seasons, a marvel of modern resiliency considering the 97-59 loss at West Virginia just one month ago.

The Morgantown Massacre was somehow set aside as Smart’s short-handed Horns showed further evidence that they’re not mentally soft after a gruesome series of games that all but eliminated them from NCAAs contention.

Or so we thought.

The Horns aren’t back, but they aren’t dead, either. They hit the bully in the mouth Monday night to creep ever so slightly back into the NCAAs picture. One week ago, the Horns couldn’t see the tournament bubble. Now they’re a couple of wins away from becoming a realistic consideration.

And who woulda thunk it?

Texas players celebrate during a 67-57 win over  West Virginia in Austin on Monday. (Lola Gomez/Austin American-Statesman)

The players have responded behind a coach who’s showing more outward passion than we’ve ever seen in Austin. He has spent his UT tenure as a calm, cool taskmaster but has come to realize he can’t leave any emotions in the tank. He’s embracing the idea of coaching with more visual fire because his team obviously feeds of that emotion. That might explain him getting a technical foul with 6:36 left —  just his third as Texas’ coach — and the team responding by holding West Virginia to just two points over the next two minutes.

“Basically when coaches get technical fouls, that means they’re showing that passion and fighting for us,” guard Andrew Jones said. “We have to show we have (Smart’s) back. We had no choice.”

Now, Tech did the Horns no favors with its listless performance in that 65-51 loss at Oklahoma on Tuesday, which allowed the Sooners to pull into a three-way tie for fourth place in the league with Texas and West Virginia. That makes for a sexy matchup next Tuesday between the Horns and Sooners in Norman.

But first things first.

Lubbock beckons.

In a season that still may end with a non-invite to the postseason, they have given fans hope in an otherwise disappointing season. Don’t be shocked if we see more of floor-pounding, T’d-up Shaka.

His team needs to see him looking the part of a coach who will do anything to keep this gig.
Smart, to his credit, has not made his job status a public issue with his players.

“The thing you realize is you have to make it about the guys and the team,” he said. “You have to let go of any desire to control any of that stuff. You have to let it go or you will drive yourself crazy.”

With all the injury problems and the roller-coaster performances in 2020, the Horns are still in position to salvage this thing.

It could be argued that Smart has followed the worst stretch of his season with his best stretch. His guys are still breathing with a chance to come up for even more air. With that said, United Supermarkets Arena remains a Big 12 beehive even though the newfangled Red Raiders aren’t anywhere near the level of last season’s national runners-up.

If Texas can pull off a fourth straight win — did I really put that in print? — the Horns will move one step closer to the NCAAs and improve upon that No. 66 national RPI.

But if they lose these next two, that RPI could become RIP for their floor-pounding  head coach.

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