Golden: Shaka's program guys are creating the right hoops culture at Texas
Horns become first school from Texas to win Big 12 Tournament
- Texas beat Oklahoma State 91-86
- The Horns were 0-6 in tourney finals before the win
- Senior Matt Coleman won most outstanding player
Experience over star power.
It’s how Shaka Smart landed the biggest blow of his Texas basketball tenure.
Kansas City was one for the culture.
Smart hasn’t matched the overall success of Texas predecessors Rick Barnes and Tom Penders but he just became the first Texas men’s coach to win a Big 12 Tournament championship.
Kudos to Shaka because he is doing it with non-stars. Kevin Durant, T.J. Ford, Mo Bamba, Jarrett Allen and Jaxson Hayes are first round NBA picks who never won a conference tourney title here but Smart did it with a nucleus of players who may never cash NBA paychecks.
Texas' previous 0-6 record in the title game just got blown up. Against an Oklahoma State team bolstered by the amazing Cade Cunningham, the no-brainer No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft, the Horns won this tournament not with household names bound for the pros but with solid college basketball players who have experienced constant heartbreak and learned from years of being cast aside while programs like Kansas, Texas Tech and Baylor got the accolades (and deservedly so).
After Saturday’s 91-86 win, the Horns resembled a bunch of oversized kindergartners at recess. They giddily cut down the nets, one after another, something that didn’t appear likely just over a month ago when Smart and several players were hit by COVID-19 around the time the team was dropping four of five conference games.
The resolve showed by this locker room is a product of Smart finding what’s commonly referred to in hoops circles as "program" guys. These are the players who stick around for three or four years, giving them the experience advantage over the more talented one-and-done stars. Some eventually make it to the NBA but many don’t. The luckiest coaches get a star and a program guy all in one. The biggest examples are hoops legends Patrick Ewing and Grant Hill, who won NCAA titles while staying four years at Georgetown and Duke, respectively.
“You win in college basketball with older guys,” Smart said. “We all know that. If you can get a transcendent young player, then obviously that can change your team, just look at (Cade Cunningham). But you still have to have some guys that are grizzled, tough. And that's what Courtney (Ramey), Andrew (Jones), Matt (Coleman) Jericho (Sims), Jase (Febres) and Brock (Cunningham) bring for our team.”
Most notably, Coleman was once thought to be a one-and-done but early struggles led to him staying the college course. So there he was, holding the most outstanding player trophy, a senior point guard who delivered a career-high 30 points in his coach’s biggest win in Austin.
As warrior’s tears flowed down his cheeks amid the celebratory cutting down of the nets, Coleman sought out the man who recruited him as an eighth grader. Above all others on the roster, he understands the mental toll the past few seasons have taken on his coach. Smart has yet to win an NCAA tournament game in four tries – the 2020 tourney was COVID-canceled – and critics (this writer included) have let him know about it.
“I'm just so happy for (Smart) because people s—- on him, excuse my language,” Coleman said. “He takes the heat for those bad years that Texas had and it has led to this. I'm just happy for him because I want this for him. Not only for myself, but I want this for him because he's been through a lot and he’s been through it all.”
Smart still has work to do – that NCAA goose egg has to be obliterated – but he made sure to enjoy this seminal moment. Before he climbed the ladder to cut the last strand, he knelt over on the sideline and looked up toward the ceiling as if to thank the heavens for the biggest win since leading VCU to a Final Four in 2011.
“I was just trying to take in the moment and really be present and be still and watch our guys and enjoy seeing them celebrating a championship,” he said “We've been through a lot of ups and downs. Just like every other team, we faced a lot of adversity this season. And so I just wanted to just really soak it in and be 1,000% present in that.”
Saturday was about redemption, a win over the hottest team in college basketball and a tourney championship for a coach who has spent the last few seasons fighting for his job. Some scoffed at the team’s NIT win a couple of years ago but Smart said it was important for his players to experience the feeling of winning a tournament – any tournament – and hoisting a trophy, even if it wasn’t the big one he was brought here to chase. Winning the Maui Classic early in the season gave us an indication of just how good this team could be. Now we're seeing similar results.
They haven't fully arrived but appear to be well on their way. With this win, the Horns and their scrappy leader just stowed away several truckloads of swagger and confidence for the upcoming Madness. More importantly, Smart has realized he can win here without huge names. First-rounders Mo Bamba, Jarrett Allen and Jaxson Hayes came and went with zero tourney wins but now he has hit on what could the recipe for future success.
Barnes’ 2003 Final Four team had a superstar in sophomore point guard T.J. Ford but was also powered by upperclassmen program guys like Brandon Mouton, Brian Boddicker, James Thomas and Royal Ivey along with Brad Buckman, a burly 6-foot-8-inch freshman from Westlake.
Stars are a huge asset but the right pieces must be in place.
Sure, Smart has a pair of projected first-rounders in Kai Jones and Greg Brown but neither is a top option on offense. The 6-foot-11-inch Jones was a breath of fresh air in the starting lineup in place of a benched Brown, whose sideline temper tantrum during the Texas Tech game played a large part in a demotion that is likely to last through the postseason.
The 6-foot-10-inch Sims, who scored 21 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in the finale, is the most overlooked big man in the country. How he wasn’t named to the All-Big 12 defensive team is a travesty.
A soft-spoken gentle giant off the court, Sims has been ferocious of late and credit has to go to Smart and former assistant Darrin Horn, whose patient approach is bearing fruit in his senior year.
“He's always gonna believe in us,” said Sims, whose pass to Kai Jones for a late dunk set off an early celebration. “He's going to believe in me. I knew that since I signed the contract to come here.”
In addition, Ramey and Andrew Jones, who didn’t play great in KC, have a history of bouncing back. The steel-nosed Cunningham brings instant energy that little intangible of grittiness to the proceedings. Shooting guard Jase Febres is back contributing in a big way after microfracture knee surgery.
They’re all program guys making a run in college basketball’s money month. Experience and depth can go a long way in a tournament setting and Smart has plenty of both.
I expect they will show up and make some real noise. Shaka has waited a long time to field a deep group of veterans and this will be a great opportunity to put the struggles of the past in the past.
Their time is now.
Who knows how far they can go but one thing is for certain: the Horns are battle-tested and ready for whatever.