Texas' head coach Shaka Smart celebrates their victory over Vanderbilt in the Big 12 SEC Challenge Saturday afternoon in the Erwin Center January 30, 2016. RALPH BARRERA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Men's Basketball

A Q&A with Shaka Smart: ‘We’re so much still a work in progress’

Texas coach appears more determined than ever to get Longhorns back on the winning track

Posted April 14th, 2017

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Story highlights
  • Asked if he was having any fun, Smart said, “My wife asked me that, too. No, it was are you happy?”
  • “It’s not about making excuses. It’s not about coming up with a rationale. It’s about getting better.”
  • Longhorns will welcome four new freshmen, and coaches are still chasing five-star center Mo Bamba.

Shaka Smart doesn’t exactly remember his whereabouts that Sunday, but he knows he was nowhere near a television set.

Asked if he watched the NCAA Tournament selection show, Smart said flat-out, “No.”

“I don’t remember what I did, but I didn’t watch the show,” Smart said. “I was probably recruiting or watching tape or spending some time with our guys.”

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Nope, there was no reason for the Longhorns to tune in after getting tuned up all winter. Texas finished the season with a disappointing 11-22 mark, the team’s worst record since the early 1980s.

On Friday, Smart sat down with the American-Statesman for a 40-minute interview about the future of Texas basketball. What emerged was a portrait of a now 40-year-old coach consumed with winning, perhaps more than anyone really imagines. He’s not overly obsessed with pleasing the UT fan base, a portion of which may now be skeptical considering he’s 31-35 so far.

Winning is the only thing that cures that. But understand that Smart’s just gone through the worst season of his professional life. He’s upset, too, even though he doesn’t really show it publicly.

The sign in Smart’s office perfectly describes his mindset — Move Forward. At this point, that’s all Smart and the Longhorns can do.

Now that it’s a month since the end of the season, what are your thoughts about the state of Texas basketball right now?

I’m excited about us moving forward. We’ve got some returning guys that I think learned some really valuable lessons this past year and got some very, very valuable experience this past year. I’m excited about the new guys that we have coming in and the opportunity to blend those two together in early June. We will work toward taking a significant step. Obviously we’re still building, and we have a chance to take a big step as a program during this offseason. We’re still recruiting, so our team’s not fully complete yet. I can’t tell you exactly when that will be. You don’t always know when guys are going to make decisions. But yes, I’m excited about what we can do in our third year.

Texas head coach Shaka Smart, center, gestures from his bench courtside in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Michigan at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

Just to recap, your first year started in China and ended on a half-court buzzer-beater that will be replayed forever. The second year, not much went right overall. The question I’m asked all the time is this: Is Shaka having any fun?

Well, I have fun helping our guys grow and seeing progress in players and working with our staff. I really enjoy that. This is a great place. I like the people here, but as a coach you have a real sense of urgency to get your team and your program where you want it to be. We’re just not there yet. I think the key word that I have to remember, we have to remember, is that word “yet.”

Like I said, I believe we can take significant steps to having the program that we want to have over these next several months. We’re really trying to make it clear to our guys what exactly it is that we need to do. Just excited to see the growth we can make. We’re going to Australia this summer in August. I’m looking forward to that more than anything, because it will give our players a chance to spend a lot of time together away from everything else. No matter what you do, I think you have to be able to create a dynamic where the guys want to play for each other, want to pull for each other. It takes a level of maturity that we didn’t really have this past year, and that’s one of the things we need to work towards.

My wife asked me that, too: Are you having fun? No, it was “are you happy?” She’s always asked me that, not just specifically here. I’m not really a happy or sad guy. I’m in (the moment). I’m excited about doing what I’m doing. I think what’s more important to me than being happy is just being present, being in the moment of what you’re doing. Maybe that’s happy for me.

The general fan sees a calm, level-headed, even-keeled person all the time. When it’s not going well, they want to see a coach tearing up the furniture, going crazy and yelling at the media. A lot of fans may be thinking, “What’s going on with this guy?” People see that the team is losing and they may ask themselves, “Is he not mad?”

You think? Well, I don’t know what you want me to say about that. I want to win more than anybody.

Would you ever alter your personality for the people outside of this program?

When I come in and talk to the media, I’m just trying to answer your questions and give you a sense of where we are or what happened in a game or what we’re trying to do. That’s just kind of who I am. When you’re in coaching and the team wins a lot, that same personality that people are questioning, that same thing can be celebrated. It’s more about winning than anything else. If anyone’s questioning whether I care about that, I don’t really know what to say about that other than you don’t know me very well. Come and watch us play and watch how I interact with the guys. I don’t know if I come into a press conference and throw tables and get into fights with people that means I care more. Nah, I don’t really buy that.

The other question fans ask is this: Where’s the Havoc? If someone approached you on the street and said, “I thought this was supposed to be all about Havoc?,” what would you say?

Well, first thing I’ll say is that I never said we’d play exactly like we did at VCU. You might have said that. The media might have said that. The media likes to simplify. Our teams at VCU were different from year to year, but everyone kind of likes to narrow it down and simplify it to one word. We started that there; that was our doing. And it was good for us. It created an identity and created a way that we approached things. But our personnel has been dramatically different than what it was at VCU. It’s dramatically different from my first year to my second year.

I don’t know that our team here is ever going to be exactly like it was at VCU from a personnel standpoint. We’re getting a different everything. And this place is different. At VCU during the time I was there, we used to say that we had Burger King All-Americans. We had a bunch of guys that were overlooked and underrated. That really created a mentality of having something to prove. If those are people’s questions, those are people’s questions. But it comes down to winning. I don’t think we get those same questions if and when we create the type of success on the floor that we want to create.

Texas coach Shaka Smart reacts from the bench alongside his players during the quarterfinal game of the Big 12 Basketball Tournament against the West Virginia Mountaineers at the Sprint Center on March 9, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Is this job and school everything you thought it was? From the fan base to the internal politics that go on here, what are your impressions of Texas now than what it was two years ago?

I know more about it than I did when I first got here. We’re so much still a work in progress in terms of our program that it’s hard to answer that question, because we haven’t seen things yet the way that we want to see them, if and when we’re able to get our program where we want it to be. In terms of everything else, I don’t really feel it’s my place or time to comment on some of the other stuff you brought up. My focus is on team, our program, our guys and just moving everybody forward.

Turning 40 causes you to have big-picture, life-altering thoughts. You just turned 40. Do you even think about what you want this program to be like 10 years from now or are you so in the moment?

You definitely do. I don’t really think about 10 years from now. It’s more about the things we want to do hopefully well before that in terms of winning and creating success for our program and what that looks like and feels like. So yeah, we want to compete for championships and win championships. When you get a chance to climb up a ladder and cut down a net, it’s an incredibly special feeling. I had the opportunity to do that at VCU multiple times, and that’s what I came here for.

During the season, you were asked about possible coaching staff changes and you kind of wrinkled your nose. Now, after the season, it was announced that assistant David Cason won’t be retained. Are you OK with the makeup of the coaching staff now?

I’m great with the staff right now. Non-verbal communication can be taken a different way. I very rarely feel like a question is a dumb question. Maybe it’s one I don’t fully understand or one that I don’t know the exact intent behind it. Sometimes you guys ask questions that mean different things than what is said. I guess what I meant by that is we’re just trying to win the next game. But yeah, I’m excited about the direction our staff is headed in.

We’re working to do the same thing on our staff that our team will have when we become the type of team that we all want to become, which is complete alignment. Everyone needs to be on the same page of what it is we need to do for Texas, for our program, for our guys. I feel really good about the progress we’ve made in that area. I think when people come here, there’s a learning curve there, too, in terms of just learning the place and how things work here. For most of us going into our third year, we have a much better understanding of that.

Q: Does the media give assistant coach Darrin Horn too much credit for developing the big men? Or does he deserve all the credit he gets?

I think he’s done a really good job. Again, the media sometimes oversimplifies. Our staff, everybody works together. It’s not like any one guy is the only guy coaching someone. When a player makes progress, sometimes it’s because of the repetitions on his jump hook or his post defense. Or it’s because some of the adjustments he’s made mentally, or how he looks at the game. And sometimes it’s both or multiple factors. Those things come from a variety of people on our staff. Darrin’s done a great job with the bigs, and I definitely think he deserves a lot of credit for that.

So the media isn’t going overboard? Or should we pull back?

I guess my only addendum would be that our whole staff deserves credit for the job we’ve done with those guys. And our bigs deserve a lot of credit. They’ve been very bought in. I thought our bigs this year really had a much more mature approach than our guards. I think Shaq (Cleare) had a lot to do with that because he set a tone.

Texas senior Shaq Cleare hugs coach Shaka Smart after leaving the court for the last time as a Longhorn. Texas lost to Baylor 75-64 at the Frank Erwin Center on March 4, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)

I would argue that your staff is 4 for 4 with taking big men and elevating their play — Cam Ridley, Prince Ibeh, Shaq Cleare and Jarrett Allen. There’s something clearly going on.

It’d be great if you could write that. We’re working on another (recruit) now.

Let’s rewind the clock to last October. It may have been a mistake to not tamp down fan expectation about the guards. The media was under the assumption you were fine with things and it would all work out. Were you more worried than you let on?

Yes. (Laughs.) I guess I didn’t do a good enough job of that. But we were nationally ranked before the season, and I did say something that we’re not a top-25 team. I was worried about it. I was concerned about it. We knew coming into the year that we didn’t have a “pure” point guard and we were losing two really, really solid decision-making, ball-handling guards in Javan (Felix) and Isaiah (Taylor). I was worried about it, but we struggled at those positions at times even more than I thought we would.

By signing Oak Hill Academy point guard Matt Coleman, there will be this perception that all problems are solved. That seems like it puts an unfair burden on him. How do you handle that?

With Matt, it starts with a high level of communication between him and I about what my expectations are for him and what I want him to do as a member of this team. It starts before you even get on the court. We need to be a more connected team. We need to have better relationships among players on our team. Those things are built over time.

Last year everyone was in a new situation; they were either a freshman or they were in a new role. That feeds into sometimes relationships or some of the things that take time. Matt is a smart kid. He understands that it’s a process. He understands that there will be challenges. But he’s also very confident. What’s going to be important is him connecting early on with all of our guys, both returning guys and other new guys around making our team the best it can be. Certainly leadership from a freshman is something that can be challenging. It’s not always easy. But we do need more leadership from all of our guys. I do think he’s something that can be capable in that area. I think Dylan (Osetkowski) is someone who’s been in the program but can really help us in that area. Then we’re going to need returning guys to really grow.

In terms of point guard, I think you’re right. Again, if you simplify and say, “Well, OK, you got this good one …” I do think the combination of adding him and the guards we do have growing and developing and learning lessons from this past year should really allow us to be better at that position. But it doesn’t just happen naturally. You have to make it happen.

Oak Hill Academy’s Matt Coleman #2 in action against Nathan Hale during the second half of a high school basketball game at the 2017 Hoophall Classic on Monday, January 16, 2017, in Springfield, MA. Nathan Hale won 80-77. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

Obviously, you’d love to have Jarrett Allen back if you could. But what can Texas basketball take away from his time here?

I say we, but it’s mostly Jarrett, but we were hopefully successful in helping him have a very good freshman season where he made a lot of progress in a variety of areas. So I guess one positive in helping him grow and mature is that’s something young guys can look at and see that maybe if they’re in a similar position, they can benefit from that same development if they’re willing to take the approach he took. He was excited about growing and learning, and that really helped him.

This is like asking you to pick your favorite kid, but which one of the new freshmen will really impress fans?

Jericho (Sims) is the one who jumps off the screen. But it’s really going to be about who can make the transition the best. I think they all are guys who can become really good players here. It’s just a matter of how quickly can they get their feet under them. We’re really excited about Jase (Fabres). I’m really hopeful he can make that adjustment somewhat smoothly. He can do something we really need, which is shoot the ball from outside. Royce Hamm physically can compete with guys just based on his body and athleticism, and he has a good well-rounded skill set. And then Matt will be really impressive just from the standpoint of knowing how to make people better.

You worked out with Dylan Osetkowski in a one-on-one setting on game days last season. My reading of the tea leaves is that he’s really going to be impressive.

He would have been a starter for us this past year. He’s either going to be good, as in, “Hey, he’s a good player.” Or, he’s going to be really, really good. The difference in those two things is how mentally and emotionally tough he is, because there are mental and emotional components into being that good. He wants a big role. He was terrific in practice this year. He really got better, worked on his body. But now when you become eligible, it’s different. It doesn’t have to be, but it can be.

At what point did the clouds part and you officially closed the book on the season and, as the sign behind you says, move forward?

I try to move forward every day. I try to focus on growth with our guys every day. When you are process-oriented, you understand the next step is the next step. There may be many, many more steps before you get to where you want to go. I didn’t even know until we were in Kansas City this year that Texas has never won the Big 12 tournament there. That just kind of stuck with me. We need to go win that.

Obviously it’s not easy. If you run into Iowa State or Kansas, it’s basically going to be a home game for them. You’ve got just a terrific league with the majority of the teams being NCAA Tournament teams. I’m just really motivated to help drive our guys to understand what it takes to do that. I don’t really want any of us to flush last season down the toilet. We need to be very aware and understand what went into some of the things that went into last season so we can learn from them and do better. That’s both as a team and also individual guys, whether it’s players or coaches. There’s a lot of stuff to learn from last year, but we have to internalize those experiences and understand what role we played in them. From that standpoint, I think it would be wrong to just take last year and throw it away.

But you didn’t fly home thinking, “Thank God that’s over with!”

No. The end of the season … it’s always hard for me because you want to still be playing. I would say every year that we were in the NCAA Tournament, I would say to our team, our players and coaches, “Hey, don’t take this for granted. This is not something to take lightly.” Then this year our name wasn’t called. There’s a real sense of urgency to feel the way we want to feel on that specific day and then have a chance to continue to grow from there.

Did you watch the NCAA selection show?

No. I don’t remember what I did, but I didn’t watch the show. I was probably recruiting or watching tape or spending some time with our guys.

Since you’ve been here, Texas has fired the winningest baseball coach in NCAA Division I history. The school fired a very well-liked football coach because he was 16-21. As the only other profitable sport on this campus going into Year 3, all the outsiders know is that you were ranked in the AP poll and finished last in the Big 12. Do you feel any extra pressure, or does that even register with you?

Because of those other things you mentioned?

Yes. Do you think, “Hey, we need to get it in gear?”

I’ve always been motivated by how we feel internally about what we want to do. We put more pressure on ourselves, I would say as a coaching staff, in terms of what we want to do than anything based on anyone else. I’m aware of that other stuff. Anyone that knows me, they know this is all I do. I have my wife and my daughter. Other than that, it’s our guys and our team.

We feel very, very passionate as coaches about what we’re trying to do. If you or other people don’t feel like we show that in the press conferences … to me, it’s more about what you show with your guys, the relationships that you have with them. Ultimately, we’re judged on our ability to get them to do what goes into winning on the court. It’s not about making excuses. It’s not about coming up with a rationale. It’s about getting better.

The season we had, you can ask whoever you want to ask about what was the reasoning behind that or what we need to do better. But we as coaches have spent a lot of time looking at where we need to move forward. We’re working really hard to do that. We’re looking at recruiting to help us do that. And we’re excited about where we can go and who we can be.

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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