Texas head coach, Shaka Smart, center right, listens to the "Eyes of Texas" song with his team after an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa State, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020, in Austin, Texas. Texas won 72-68. (AP Photo/Michael Thomas)

Men's Basketball

Everywhere you look, pressure is building around Texas men’s basketball

With nine Big 12 games left, players, coach Shaka Smart, AD Chris Del Conte are all frustrated by a season that’s sputtering along

Posted February 7th, 2020

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Story highlights
  • “The thing about playing in the Big 12 is there are a ton of opportunities to go get quality wins, starting with Saturday.”
  • Last Tuesday, fans politely navigated around the issue of Smart and his job status.
  • To be clear, Smart controls his own destiny at Texas. It’s a make-or-miss game in a bottom-line business.

Pressure is building everywhere you look around the Texas men’s basketball program. The gauges, all approaching red-line status, cannot be ignored anymore.

Pressure is building on the players who know this season teeters on the brink.

“You’re not pissed off where you’re feeling down on yourself,” guard Matt Coleman III said after Monday’s loss at third-ranked Kansas. “You’re pissed off and motivated.”

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Pressure is building on coach Shaka Smart, who has yet to win a NCAA Tournament game in four-plus seasons. The Longhorns are 14-8, the same overall record as Saturday’s opponent Texas Tech, but 4-5 in league play.

The best any of Smart’s four previous teams have done down the stretch is a 5-4 finish  in 2016. Since then, Texas has gone 1-8, 4-5 and 4-5.

With nine Big 12 games left, would a 9-9 league record with a soft non-conference schedule even be good enough for Texas to make the NCAAs?

“You know, I think all that stuff is to be determined,” Smart said Friday. “The thing about playing in the Big 12 is there are a ton of opportunities to go get quality wins, starting with Saturday.”

RELATED: Men’s preview: Texas vs. Texas Tech

And there’s pressure building on UT athletic director Chris Del Conte from basketball fans — the few that still come around, anyway.

During Tuesday’s Texas Athletics Town Hall forum, fans politely navigated around the issue of Smart and his job status. But the implication was unmistakable.

“You’ve gained a well-deserved reputation for working with your coaches to give them the tools and resources that they need to succeed,” one fan asked Del Conte. “Basketball question: What additional tools and resources are needed in basketball?”

Another fan praised Del Conte’s mantra of holding coaches to national championship standards. “In men’s basketball, does coach Smart fit that profile?” the fan asked.

Texas head coach Shaka Smart talks to Texas forward Royce Hamm Jr. (5) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lawrence, Kan., Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)

One frustrated fan went after the Achilles’ heel of Smart’s teams: Missed free throws. This year’s team ranks eighth in the Big 12, hitting 65.9% of its shots at the stripe.

“Our Longhorns can’t seem to have a decent free throw percentage and when we need ’em the most, then miss ’em,” she told Del Conte. “So, part of the apathy is, it breaks our hearts to see what’s going on with the basketball team.”

Another fan dug in on the lack of fan support at the games and the Erwin Center’s mausoleum feel. “And I’m sorry, we do not support the men’s basketball team like we should,” the fan said. “It should be fun to go there. There’s a reason to go there. There’s a responsibility once you get there.”

Make no mistake, if there is a change in basketball coaches, it will be made by Del Conte in consultation with Texas President Gregory L. Fenves. This isn’t football, where outside voices carry internal weight. Neither can afford UT basketball to be mired in mediocrity, especially not with construction already underway on the $338-million Moody Center. It’s imperative Texas put a good product into a new arena.

The sport’s high-profile nature and money involved make this decision critical. Smart has three years left on his contract worth $10.5 million guaranteed.

“The noise around them is real, and I acknowledge that,” Del Conte said.

On the court, Texas played 20 brilliant minutes at Allen Fieldhouse on Monday, and Andrew Jones’ 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer gave the Horns a two-point lead at the break. But Smart’s club went 1-for-10 from 3-point range in the second half while Kansas was Kansas. The Jayhawks cruised to 69-58 win.

Texas guard Donovan Williams (4) steals the ball from Kansas guard Marcus Garrett (0) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lawrence, Kan., Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)

Travel problems coming back home made things worse. The charter plane couldn’t leave Topeka, Kan., so the Horns had to stay another night.

Del Conte was dodging fastballs from fans on Tuesday. Smart spent the rest of the week figuring out how his team can play so well in one half and fall apart the next.

“That’s the best way to help yourself is just be completely in the moment, engross yourself in that day, that game, and put everything you have into it,” Smart said.

And to top off this week, here come the Red Raiders, led by the coach that Longhorns fans openly covet, Chris Beard.

Beard has won 90 games in four seasons in Lubbock. Smart has won only 85 in five seasons in Austin.

Tech beat No. 1 Louisville in December but has found rougher sledding in league play. Still, Raiders fans will give Beard and his totally rebuilt roster a pass. This is the same program that drove all the way to the Big 12 title and NCAA national championship game last season.

It’s also the same program led by an athletic director who gave his men’s basketball coach an extension with an incredible buyout clause. In what amounts to a poison pill provision, Beard (or his new suitor) would owe Texas Tech $6 million if he left Lubbock for another school in Texas or the Big 12.

So for you dreamers, let’s say Del Conte wanted to hire Beard. To just start the conversation, it would cost $16.5 million, a figure that probably leaves Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt smiling with a double-fisted “Guns Up.”

Texas Tech fans celebrate on the court with coach Chris Beard after an NCAA college basketball game against West Virginia, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020, in Lubbock, Texas. (AP Photo/Brad Tollefson)

To be clear, Smart controls his own destiny at Texas. It’s a make-or-miss game in a bottom-line business.

Texas, TCU and Oklahoma are all tied for fifth place in the league standings, one game behind fourth-place Tech. Who emerges atop that jumbled pack is likely to get into the NCAA Tournament, a thought that has not escaped the Texas coach.

“Most of the time,” Smart said, “you’re going to be playing against someone who is maybe in a similar position from a standpoint of wanting to move up. And it’s you against them.”

Nine games remain this regular season, then comes the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City.

Del Conte would like nothing more if fan excitement started building. But instead, pressure in the only thing rising around Cooley Pavilion.

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

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