Shaka Smart lays the foundation for UT's future success but roster uncertainty is coming
Posted March 19th, 2016
OKLAHOMA CITY — A season that began in China, halfway around the world, ended with a shot from practically the same distance.
Paul Jesperson’s buzzer-beating, half-court runner — a 50-footer, give or take a few steps — banked true as Northern Iowa captured a stunning 75-72 win at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Northern Iowa fans went berserk. Texas A&M fans had a smirk. And national reporters scurried to the winning locker room to lionize a miracle shot that’ll make NCAA highlight reels for years to come.
Over on the other side, it was a decidedly different scene. The Longhorns were absolutely crushed.
“There’s not really much you can say to make them feel better in moments like this,” Texas coach Shaka Smart said. “I just told ’em I love ’em and I’m proud of them.”
The moments immediately after one of the most gut-wrenching losses in recent Texas basketball history offered a real glimpse into the program’s future under Smart. Seniors like Javan Felix and Connor Lammert were not crying only because their careers were over. They were upset because their time under Smart is finished, too.
“He puts so much into this,” Felix said. “He loves us genuinely. He’s going to fight for us. He’s going to make sure we have everything we need. He’s going to put us in all the right positions to be successful. We love that.”
Fans can nitpick and criticize the coaching staff for UT (20-13) being eliminated in the first round of the NCAAs. Texas hasn’t made the Sweet 16 since 2008 — an embarrassing factoid for an athletic program of this stature, to be sure. Only the football-obsessed fanatics would draw such black-and-white distinctions about where the program has been and where it’s going, though.
Anyone who spent considerable time around this team saw how much these players enjoy playing for Smart, who will turn 39 next month.
“I know this program is headed in the right direction under coach Smart,” Lammert said. “It sucks that I’m not going to be able to play for him anymore, but I’m certainly going to remember my time here. It’s pretty special.”
Texas didn’t exactly make things easy on itself. Senior center Cam Ridley, arguably the team’s most important player, suffered a fractured foot two days after Christmas and didn’t play again until the Big 12 Tournament. The Horns also started league play with a shaky 1-2 record.
Smart himself even admitted, “Everybody was really down on us after we lost to TCU” on Jan. 9.
But the team rebounded, finished fourth overall in the Big 12 and won at least 20 games for the 16th time in 17 seasons. Texas went 4-1 at home against teams ranked in the Top 20 and 14-3 at home overall.
Think about this: Smart won three more Big 12 games this season without Ridley and a future NBA lottery pick. Texas went 8-10 in Big 12 play during the 2014-15 campaign even with Myles Turner, who is now blossoming with the Indiana Pacers.
“Somebody said we overachieved this year,” guard Isaiah Taylor said. “I don’t see how that’s the case. We have a lot of talent on this team. We can play with anybody in the country. We had key wins against big teams. We consider ourselves a big team, too.”
Smart has laid a winning foundation, but the majority of this season’s work came with former coach Rick Barnes’ players.
More than half the roster will turn over before November. Five seniors are leaving, and Taylor could jump into the NBA draft. Another scholarship spot opened up when Jordan Barnett transferred in December.
The Horns might have to find seven new players next season, an incredibly high number.
James Banks, a 6-foot-10 center, and Jacob Young, a 6-1 guard, have already signed letters of intent. It’s believed UT is in the running, if not the leader, for five-star recruit Jarrett Allen of St. Stephen’s.
Allen, a 6-9 forward, might announce his intentions at the McDonald’s All-American game on March 30. It’s thought that his announcement could trigger several other recruits to follow suit.
Texas coaches will keep their ears to the ground for graduate transfers while prospecting the junior college ranks.
“There’s no question the makeup of our team will be significantly different next year,” Smart said. “That would’ve been the case if we rattled off six straight wins in the NCAA Tournament. This just means, with the season ending, we have to turn the page.”
For the Longhorns, that could be difficult. Losing a Big 12 game isn’t the same as losing in the NCAAs. On a half-court buzzer-beater, no less.
Taylor, like others, believes Smart is the right coach now and for the future.
“Coach Smart’s going to get this team where it needs to be,” Taylor said. “He’s done a great job, him and his staff, this year really getting us to follow his plan. We responded I think this year better than ever in my three years at Texas.”
TEXAS BY THE NUMBERS
Here’s a look at some final statistics:
Javan Felix: Finished collegiate career with 1,249 points (21st in UT history) and a 1.69 career assist-to-turnover ratio (eighth in UT history).
Demarcus Holland: Played in 135 career games (tied for seventh in UT history).
Prince Ibeh: Finished his career with 212 blocks (fourth in UT history). Played in 135 career games (tied for seventh in UT history)
Connor Lammert: Finished career with 136 games played (tied for fourth in UT history)
Isaiah Taylor: Finished the season with a 2.69 assist-to-turnover ratio (third in UT history). Moved into the school’s top 20 scoring list with 1,254 career points and now ranks seventh with 415 assists.