Golly, gee willikers. This Big 12 schedule is tough stuff. It’s almost as if those opposing players get scholarships, too. They have spirit, yes they do. They have spirit, how about Texas?
Can this season be saved after a disappointing 1-2 start in league play? Darn tootin’, it can.
To hear Texas coach Shaka Smart tell it, that’s the aw-shucks mentality that permeates his Longhorns. He knew these players had to be handled with care. But it sounds like Smart’s reaching his internal boiling point waiting for someone to get mad having lost three of the last four games.
Next comes Tuesday’s date with 17th-ranked Iowa State, a team that left Texas mentally shattered last season after a thrilling comeback at the Big 12 tournament.
Related coverage: Men’s preview: Texas vs. Iowa State
“Unfortunately, for whatever reason, we have some guys that I guess have learned in the past that it’s OK to get down, it’s OK to be bummed out and sometimes to maybe blame somebody else,” Smart said Monday. “It’s not the refs. It’s not the basket. It’s not the ball. It’s not the crowd. It’s us, doing the best we can do to create what goes into winning,” he added.
Smart should be advised to walk a fine line here. These are the same players who tuned out former coach Rick Barnes last season when he called them a bunch of “phony tough guys.” Barnes went full blast after an embarrassing 70-49 loss at home to rival Oklahoma. “We can’t even remember the plays half the time,” Barnes said. “I’m serious.”
Barnes backed off those comments the following day, after he’d cooled off. But Texas had two four-game losing streaks in league play and staggered into the postseason.
Texas Tech was simply overmatched in Texas’ opening-round win in the Big 12 tournament. But the Horns had high hopes against the Cyclones, a team with a virtual home-court advantage and tremendous fan support in Kansas City, Mo.
Texas had a 16-point first half lead in what was shaping up as an upset. But with seven minutes left, Barnes slowed things down, perceived as a fatal mistake then as it is now. Texas still had a 10-point lead with 3:56 left. But some critical Iowa State shots and two self-inflicted UT turnovers brought things to a head.
Monte Morris’ buzzer-beater sealed an electric 69-67 win for the Cyclones. From that point on, it was clear a coaching change was coming after 17 seasons in Austin.
Smart, much like football coach Charlie Strong, may not care about players’ individual feelings. He’s trying to change the culture. Strong had a critical player get hurt his first year, when quarterback David Ash was lost for the season in the 2014 opener. Smart has now lost Cam Ridley. Still, both coaches refuse to deviate from their quest.
Smart said you cannot win games when you are “bummed out.”
“When you have five guys on the floor who are putting everything they have into what goes into winning and not really focusing on anything else,” Smart said, “then that gives you a really good chance to be successful. But as soon as one, two or more guys get caught up in their feelings, or that this game’s not going the way I want it to or whatever it may be, that’s when it reduces your chances of winning.”
Iowa State (12-3, 1-2 Big 12) is not unbeatable. In fact, Texas Tech had Georges Niang and Co. on the ropes in Ames. Baylor went a step further and won there last weekend. It’s the first of two homes games this week for Texas; the Longhorns also host Oklahoma State on Saturday.
But Smart knows his team can’t fall behind in the Big 12 race. By pushing the Horns through the media, he may be pushing them to be better — or just over the edge.