Men's Basketball

Offseason lift: Shaka Smart balances NIT excitement over Texas’ real goals of NCAA glory

Smart eager to get back home, look players in the eye ‘and see what they take out of this tournament’

Posted April 5th, 2019

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Story highlights
  • Longhorns finish the season with a 21-16 overall record.
  • “Our motto for this tournament has been aggressive, confident and loose.”
  • Another top-10 freshman class will join Matt Coleman, Courtney Ramey and others.

There’s a weird balance one strikes at the end of an NIT championship run.

Sure, any college basketball coach would be happy to win a postseason tournament. But this wasn’t the goal. It’s never the goal at a major school like Texas. Shaka Smart has a litany of contractual bonuses for advancing in the NCAA Tournament. He’s owed nothing extra for winning the NIT.

Of course, Smart was excited after the Longhorns finished off the NIT championship on Thursday in New York. His club finished the year on a five-game winning streak and carded a 21-16 record.

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Yet he’s been somewhat subdued these last two weeks and again in a small, plain vanilla coaching office inside Madison Square Garden.

Texas guard Matt Coleman III (2) and guard Courtney Ramey (3) celebrate during the first half of a final college basketball game in the National Invitational Tournament against the Lipscomb, Thursday, April 4, 2019, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

“Our motto for this tournament has been aggressive, confident and loose,” Smart said after the 81-66 win over Lipscomb in the NIT championship game. “It’s one thing to say that. It’s another thing to go do it.”

Asked how he weighs NIT victory against UT’s real goals, Smart said, “I’m really interested to have a conversation with our guys once they get removed from this trip and tournament and really look them in the eye and see what they take out of this tournament.”

Here’s a sobering factoid for the burnt-orange optimists. Only three of the last 10 NIT champions went on to reach the NCAA Tournament the following year. Two only reached the round of 64. Baylor at least made it to the Sweet 16. Penn State and Stanford won the NIT twice over the last decade. Neither program did anything the following year.

Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte made it crystal clear afterward that he expects the Horns to be “an NCAA championship program.” He talks openly about demanding every UT program be nationally ranked and nationally competitive. That is his unwavering mission. “That’s always our goal,” he said.

Del Conte’s favorite phrase is that he wants coaches “who want to be the hunted.” Right now, Smart is a hunter.

Del Conte will readily admit that playing in the NIT — whether Texas wins it or not — is not what fans want or expect. Still, the Horns had solid personalities inside locker room this season. Most of the team will be back, minus seniors Kerwin Roach II and Dylan Osetkowski and (most likely) NBA-bound freshman Jaxson Hayes.

The Horns will welcome another top-10 ranked freshman class, headlined by Westlake big man Will Baker. He’s expected to provide more of an instant offensive punch than Hayes, who built up to 10 points per game. Kai Jones (6-foot-10) and Donovan Williams (6-foot-5) will also work into the mix.

What happened after winning the NIT?

Of the last 10 NIT champions, only three made the NCAA Tournament the next season. Baylor made the deepest run, going to the NCAA round of 16 the year after winning the NIT.
YearNIT winnerWhat happened the next season?
2009Penn State11-20, did not make NCAAs
2010Dayton22-14, did not make NCAAs
2011Wichita State27-6, NCAA round of 64
2012Stanford19-15, did not make NCAAs
2013Baylor26-12, NCAA round of 16
2014Minnesota18-15, did not make NCAAs
2015Stanford15-15, did not make NCAAs
2016George Washignton20-15, did not make NCAAs
2017TCU21-12, NCAA round of 64
2018Penn State14-18, did not make NCAAs
2019TexasTo be determined

Don’t focus so much on the new faces. There’s more excitement internally about freshman Courtney Ramey’s development. His defense and doggedness in the finals against Lipscomb’s Garrison Mathews was sensational. Freshman Gerald Liddell deserves more run next season, as does sophomore Royce Hamm Jr.

“I feel like just sticking to what I do best and do that to the best of my abilities, then other stuff will start happening for me,” Hamm said. He had four points, four rebounds and a terrific block against Lipscomb.

Texas forward Jericho Sims dunks during the first half against Lipscomb in an NCAA college basketball game for the NIT championship Thursday, April 4, 2019, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

There are already some interesting lineup combinations. Make Ramey and Coleman the two starting guards, put Liddell on the wing and have some combination of Jericho Sims, Hamm and Baker down low.

Jase Febres (37.2% this season from 3-point range) is still going to be a volume 3-point shooter. He must develop a mid-range game. Elijah Mitrou-Long needs to be more consistent, and Kamaka Hepa must find a role.

“Guys were just so stress free,” Coleman said of the NIT run. “We came together closer off the court. It was crazy how we just bonded, and said forget it, let’s just play.”

Once again, Texas will have talent aplenty. Getting it to form a cohesive unit and hold tight during close games will once again be the issue. The Horns went 6-10 this season in games decided by six points or fewer.

This is partly why Del Conte chose to keep Smart, although to ignore the coach’s $13-million buyout would be disingenuous, too.

“I’m happy for the team, happy for the players, happy for the coaches,” Del Conte said. “I said I was never going to feed into the rumor mill that (the media) were writing about.”

As a program, the Horns are falling behind others in the state. Texas Tech just reached its first Final Four after winning a share of the Big 12 title. Houston was in the NCAA’s round of 32 last year and the Sweet 16 this season. Texas A&M has momentum after hiring Virginia Tech’s Buzz Williams.

Smart has yet to win an NCAA Tournament game in four seasons at Texas. The Horns have made the big tournament only twice in that time. Had Texas lost to South Dakota State in the NIT opener — and the Horns did blow a 19-point lead for the third time this season — Smart would have a losing record as UT’s coach.

Instead, Texas is the NIT champions, Smart is five games over .500 at 71-66 and the program has a lift going into the offseason. More work remains.

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

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