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Bohls: Abilene Christian stuns Texas, puts coach Shaka Smart's job in jeopardy

Texas head coach Shaka Smart walks off the court after Saturday night's 53-52 loss to Abilene Christian in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.  UT officials must now consider the future of Smart's tenure after six years and zero NCAA victories.
  • Texas squandered its best chance of a deep tournament run with a turnover-filled performance.
  • School officials must weigh the merits of Smart's success against his 0-3 NCAA record.
  • Smart has two years left on his contract with a $7.1 million buyout after falling to 14 seed.

The game had to end with a turnover.

Mainly because the Longhorns' turnovers never ended.

Now the discussion morphs into a debate about whether Shaka Smart will turn over his coaching whistle to a successor despite being a classy, stand-up guy.

That’s because in the biggest game of the year on college basketball’s grandest stage — the same floor inside Lucas Oil Stadium where the sport will crown its national champion in two weeks — Texas quite simply dropped the ball with an inexplicable, season-worst 23 turnovers in a stunning 53-52 first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Abilene Christian.

The third-seeded Longhorns not only dropped the ball, they dribbled it off their feet, passed it to the other team, traveled excessive steps with it, drove into the opponents with it for charges and mishandled it as well as they did this golden opportunity.

Basketball:Abilene Christian 53, Texas 52: Longhorns suffer gut-punching loss in NCAA opener

In so doing, they flubbed their best chance at advancing deep into the NCAA brackets and making the most noise a Texas team has in two decades.

Texas is out after one game, the only one of the seven Big 12 teams in the field to be eliminated. That’s a stark reality for a team that had won five straight, including the Big 12 Tournament, and was peaking.

Abilene Christian's Joe Pleasant, center, battles for the ball with Texas' Jericho Sims and Greg Brown. Pleasant ended up sinking the game-winning free throws in an upset of Texas.

This deep, talented team with size in the paint, experience in the backcourt and at least two or three legitimate NBA prospects has now put its cherished coach’s job into jeopardy because the tally after six uneven seasons under Smart comes to zero NCAA Tournament wins.

None.

Shaka Smart is uh-0-and-3.

And that’s not what the Texas brass is paying for. It’s a most disturbing trend and all too familiar.

School officials chose not to discuss the subject late Saturday night, and who can blame them amid the heartbreak for their players who had achieved some wonderful things like a No. 4 national ranking and a sweep of Kansas and the school’s first ever Big 12 Tournament title.

But conference tournament championships and gaudy rankings during the season are not how ultimate success is measured in this sport. It’s about cutting down nets in April, and I’m not sure Smart owns a pair of scissors. Andrew Jones hit two key free throws and a clutch 3-pointer for the lead in the final 56 seconds, but it didn't hold up.

"It doesn't feel real," a deeply wounded UT senior point guard Matt Coleman III said. "I feel like I'm gonna wake up from a bad dream."

Basketball:Kamie Ethridge returns to Texas with Washington State as NCAA Tournament opens

Instead of one shining moment, tiny Abilene Christian handed Texas one tarnished memory.

When the Wildcats’ Joe Pleasant was fouled by Coleman with 1.2 seconds left and sank the decisive two free throws as his team’s worst player at the foul line and then intercepted Brock Cunningham's long inbounds pass to seal the outcome, Texas had lost to a Southland Conference opponent who had never won a single game in NCAA history and who has been playing at the Division I level for only eight years after an unspectacular Division II history.

As Wildcats coach Joe Golding said, “We were the worst DI team in the country, and we just beat the University of Texas."

Abilene Christian players check on Texas forward Brock Cunningham after Cunningham fell to the floor awkwardly in the second half of Saturday night's ACU win in the NCAA Tournament.

But this is a tournament where the unexpected happens with regularity. It should have shocked absolutely no one since Texas has underachieved for a decade, and no fewer than nine double-digit seeds just won their first-round games, even 15th-seeded Oral Roberts against 2-seed Ohio State. That’s nine out of 27 chances.

Coleman, the unquestioned leader of this team with a remarkable career, had one of his worst games with almost as many turnovers (seven) as points (nine). But he strongly defended his coach, who recruited him when he was an eighth-grader in Virginia, against his critics.

“They're not in the locker room every day,” Coleman said. “He built a culture here. He can't win a game. He's not on the court. His guys just didn't play up to their skillset. It’s not on him. I failed him.”

Coleman owned it. But Saturday’s laments speak to the responsibility of the head coach and his staff, and the turnovers and mistakes and inability to get future NBA forward Jericho Sims more than one shot in the entire second half (and three all game) fuel those who want Smart to go.

“Obviously we didn’t play our best,” Smart said, “and Abilene Christian deserves a lot of credit for that the way they defended.”

Lord knows Smart has had plenty of time. Does it matter that, unlike the previous football coach, he seems well-liked and respected in his own locker room? However, something is amiss. Something is lacking.

And the school must consider that next year’s team won’t have the near the experience or ability of the one whose season just ended with a 19-8 record. In addition, the 2021-22 season will be the final one in the Erwin Center before the Longhorns move into their glitzy, new Moody Center home.

Chris Del Conte can stick with Smart — he has two years left on his contract, which calls for a $7.1 million buyout if Texas goes that route — but he’d probably like more momentum before the team goes into its new digs. And there’s not exactly a strong lineup of solid candidates to replace him when the most appealing coaches are being extended left and right around the country.

That’s the dilemma Del Conte and UT President Jay Hartzell are facing.

At some point, Texas has to decide how serious it is about making a national impression with its basketball program and determine if it’s enough to have a coach like the classy Smart, who is a good guy who operates within the rules, is liked by his players and has recruited well but had little glossy things to show for it. Charlie Strong was a great guy, too, and he lasted only three seasons.

Strong lost to Kansas and got his walking papers. Smart beat Kansas twice this season, but no one in mid-March on.

In the blink of an eye, Smart’s best season at Texas came to a frantic, bitter end. 

From Asheville to ashes.

A team that won every tournament it played from the Maui Invitational in Asheville, N.C., to the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City and had what nearly everyone assumed was a realistic shot in the NCAA Tournament couldn’t win a single game in Indiana. Not even against a 14 seed that made only 29.9% of its shots, the first team in tournament history to win a game after hitting fewer than 30% of its shots.

A historic night for the Wildcats. And now Texas has to consider its future history.