If Shaka Smart had any doubts about the power of Texas’ brand, Monday provided a stark reminder he’s not fighting for attention at Virginia Commonwealth anymore.
Smart’s first VCU team won 27 games and never broke into the Associated Press Top 25 poll. The next season, VCU went to the Final Four and still never got ranked. Year three was a shutout as well.
Smart had to win 98 games in three-plus seasons before VCU cracked the top 25. At Texas, all he needed was 16 games in his maiden voyage.
The Longhorns, led by their first-year coach, broke into both national men’s basketball polls on Monday for the first time this season. Texas was 24th overall in the Associated Press poll and 25th in the USA Today coaches poll.
Texas had a critical showdown with No. 3 Oklahoma late Monday. The Sooners were ranked first in the AP poll last week before being upset.
Being ranked is nothing particularly new at Texas. The Horns reached No. 1 in 2010 and got as high as sixth last season. But it’s a welcome honor for a team that’s battled back from a 2-3 start in early December and was 1-2 at one point early in the Big 12 race.
Since an embarrassing 58-57 loss at TCU on Jan. 9, Texas has bullied its way into a tie for second place in the league standings. Along the way this season, Smart’s bunch has knocked off then-No. 3 North Carolina and No. 17 Iowa State at home and No. 6 West Virginia and No. 15 Baylor on the road.
Including Monday’s game against OU, Texas closes out the regular season with six ranked opponents in eight games. The Horns won a conference title in 2008 and finished second in 2011, but generally have finished somewhere in the middle of the pack in recent years.
With UT’s move up the standings, national bracketologists have moved the team up their projected NCAA Tournament boards as well. Both CBS Sports and ESPN now have the Horns projected as a No. 5 seed in the tournament. If that held all the way to Selection Sunday, it would be UT’s highest seeding since 2011.