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Golden: In challenging season, once-reserved Shaka Smart isn't holding back

Off huge 69-65 win at Oklahoma, Horns close regular season at TCU Sunday

Texas coach Shaka Smart has been forced to navigate a season full of personal and national pandemic-related challenges. He caught COVID-19 in January, and the team subsequently went through a rough patch, but now the Longhorns appear to be bouncing back.
  • Texas has won two straight to improve to 16-7 overall and 10-6 in Big 12
  • Smart was excited to get the Oklahoma win after having to sit out the first meeting after testing positive for the COVID-19 virus
  • The Horns haven't won an NCAA Tourney game in Smart's five-plus seasons

Shaka Smart rarely wears his heart on his sleeve.

In the first five years of his Texas tenure, he kept it cool on the sidelines and with the media with an all-too-familiar Tony Dungy-type demeanor.

It was a stately mix of cool, calm and collected.

Well, that was then, and this is now. 

I asked Smart after Thursday night's big 69-65 win at Oklahoma about his mental state in late January, when he was reduced to the role of a coronavirus-induced spectator as his short-handed Horns — missing starters Jericho Sims and Courtney Ramey and key sub Brock Cunningham — lost by one point to the Sooners at the Erwin Center.

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He didn't mince words, especially when I told him to "say it with your chest," which basically means to keep it real.

"I felt like a caged animal, man," Smart said. 

Smart is still as classy as they come, but he has come to realize in this, his sixth season, that sometimes you have to get down to the nitty-gritty and not mince words or worry about optics. Laid-back Shaka from five years ago has been replaced by court-slapping Shaka. 

He always gave honest, constructive criticism to the players behind closed doors. He rarely showed those details. He's doing so now. He will never become a scary chair-throwing monster like Bob Knight, but 2021 Shaka has chased down an official or two. Did you see him in the ref's face after the no-call on Sims' game-tying tip-in attempt at the buzzer against West Virginia?

Texas coach Shaka Smart exhorts his team during the Feb. 20 game against West Virginia at the Erwin Center.

It's Smart fighting for his guys in full view of Texas fans, the media and basketball fans nationwide. It's a coach — still in search of his first NCAA tourney win with the Longhorns — who realizes that he has to let it all hang out in a pivotal year for his program.

This season has been one challenge after another for him and other coaches who have had to plan around the pandemic in the areas of practice, scheduling and game management. 

When he announced Jan. 25 that he had tested positive, Smart was trying to hold his team together. The Horns were beset by positive tests, and at one point only three players were available to practice. With a matchup against Oklahoma scheduled one day later, Smart was separated from his two families — his wife and daughter, and his team.

Opinion:Where is Texas headed? Smart understandably giddy over landmark win

He watched the game alone in a hotel room, unable to counsel assistant coach K.T. Turner, unable to call a timeout when OU rallied, unable to do anything but yell at the screen, as the Horns fought to the end before succumbing.

"Watching that game was one of the worst basketball experiences of my life because I just felt helpless," he said. "I knew our team was less than whole.” 

None of us will ever forget the Smart who emerged from his quarantine. He was visibly on edge during the Zoom call, first because he suffered significant symptoms during his illness but also because the Horns were forced to play the Oklahoma game per Big 12 protocols that required teams with six available players to play. 

Texas guard Courtney Ramey tries to get around Oklahoma's Brady Manek during the first half Thursday. Ramey hit two big 3-pointers late in the Horns' 69-65 win.

The coach, whose team hadn't practiced all together in nearly three weeks, met with the media and answered questions with his chest. Dungy gave way to Ditka.

"I'm not talking about (Oklahoma)," he said, when asked about the loss.

When I remarked that he sounded changed and asked what was going on, he said, "Not much, other than I just recovered from COVID."

Texas was clearly the better team for most of the evening, even with its most experienced guard, Matt Coleman III, having one of the worst nights of his career, though his only points came on a humongous jumper that put Texas up four with 12.4 seconds left. 

After fouling out of the Iowa State win with six points and zero rebounds, Sims got double-digit touches for just the fourth time in his career and delivered a dunkfest and a double-double. Ramey knocked down a pair of clutch 3-pointers down the stretch, and freshman Greg Brown — smartly inserted by Analytics Shaka at the end for the free-throw challenged Sims — swished two foul shots to put the Sooners away for good. 

At 16-7 and 10-6 in Big 12 play with the regular-season finale coming up Sunday at TCU, the Horns will make the NCAA Tournament and, more important, are slowly rediscovering the early-season mojo that catapulted them to the No. 4 ranking in the nation.

Better yet, Smart and this locker room are healthy and riding a nice little wave at the right time of the year.

"Each day is going to be an important day for us," Ramey said. "You can get better each and every day.  Even off days, we can get better. So I think that we have that mindset going forward. We can be one step closer to where we were. It just shows that if we stay with it, and we stay together, we can be a good team," 

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had Texas listed as a No. 4 seed in his Thursday projection, and the Horns could most certainly move up to a No. 3 with a win Sunday and a nice showing in the Big 12 Tournament next week. Their story has has yet to be fully told, but the Horns — still as guard-dependent as ever — have the potential to be one tough out come the NCAAs. 

No one is happier to be back in the mix than Smart, who is well aware that his livelihood moving forward will come down to how Texas does in the postseason. The 6-5 record over the past 11 games doesn't scare anybody, but he has his team headed in the right direction.

He's out of the cage and hunting for bigger game.