Officially, the last Texas men’s basketball game of the season was an 81-59 loss at home to Oklahoma State.
But before that thumping on March 7, Texas had won five straight. The late-season run had helped the Longhorns (19-12) bounce back onto the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. With a solid performance at the Big 12 tournament, they could have strongly lobbied for the attention of the selection committee.
Just before their tournament opener against Texas Tech, however, the Longhorns learned that the Big 12 tournament had been canceled as concerns spread about the coronavirus. Hours later, the NCAA called off March Madness altogether.
And with that, the offseason had suddenly begun. Texas didn’t have any seniors on its roster. None of the 13 Longhorns declared for the NBA draft.
“There’s a ton of lessons to take from this past season, and that’s one of the positives of having a lot of players back,” UT coach Shaka Smart said Monday in a conference call with reporters. “That only is effective in as much as those lessons are applied and remembered.”
Due to social distancing standards, those lessons are being taught over text messages and Zoom chats. Smart, who will return for his sixth season, has been able to have one-on-one film sessions with his players. He even said ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary series on the Chicago Bulls has been used as a training tool.
Texas Basketball U is currently short a professor, though. Former assistant coach Luke Yaklich left for the head coaching job at Illinois-Chicago in March. He has not been replaced yet.
This is the fifth time since Smart’s first season that he has needed to hire an assistant coach. He said he wants a candidate who won’t mess with the chemistry developed by his returning players and staff. Alignment with Smart’s philosophies is a must. There are also basketball and recruiting considerations to consider.
Had this been a normal year, it’s quite possible that Smart would have already run into a couple of prospective hires and references while recruiting the AAU circuit. He said “you’re just trying to peel back the layers as much as possible.” That peeling, however, has been conducted with phone calls and Zooms.
Despite the current climate, Smart said candidates have been receptive to his overtures. UT athletic director Chris Del Conte also hasn’t expressed any hesitancy about the process.
“Chris has been really supportive (in saying), ‘Hey, go and hire whoever you need to hire and go about the process as best you can like you normally would,'” Smart said. “There really hasn’t been any restrictions from that standpoint.”
Smart was asked if he would think about incoming freshman Greg Brown III when hiring his next assistant coach. Brown could be a factor, Smart conceded.
“When you’re hiring an assistant coach or anyone to join your staff, one of the first things you want to factor in is your current roster,” Smart said. “Obviously, Greg’s a big part of that now. He’s part of that consideration, but I don’t know if it necessarily means that we need a completely different type of coach.”
Many of the questions that were asked during the 40-minute call concerned Brown. A five-star prospect from nearby Vandegrift High, he chose Texas over offers from several schools and the G League last Friday. Smart said Brown, who’s the only signee in his 2020 recruiting class, will bring “an added level of violence on the court and aggressiveness.”
Smart also provided a flurry of injury updates. Jase Febres and Donovan Williams are making progress after having knee surgeries near the end of the season. Jericho Sims and Gerald Liddell are still resting and recovering after suffering stress fractures in their backs, and Brock Cunningham’s twisted ankle isn’t fully healed yet. Guard Matt Coleman III was playing through a heel bruise but Smart said the senior-to-be has “gotten back closer to being pain-free.”