Golden: Shaka watch is back on after Texas' latest NCAA collapse
Horns were favored by some to make the Final Four
- Team leader Matt Coleman committed seven turnovers
- Texas lost 53-52 to Abilene Christian
Shaka Smart’s job hangs in the balance.
As well it should.
His Texas Longhorns created some memorable moments in 2021, but while all of the good tidings were occurring, it came with the understanding that they would have to win at least one game in the NCAA Tournament to count this season as real success.
And keep Smart here for sure.
Smart is beloved in his locker room and respected on campus, but he wasn’t brought here to kiss babies and win popularity contests. His job was to win a game or two in the Big Dance, which isn’t really much to ask given the demands placed on his football colleagues. Tom Herman won a Sugar Bowl and went 4-0 in bowl games and got run out of town.
Smart arrived six years ago with dreams of leading the program to special places. That talk was fine, but here we sit at the conclusion of Year 6 and Smart is 0-3 in the NCAAs with two years remaining on his deal.
The pressure to win in Austin has nothing to do with championships. Shoot, the people running the show would have gladly taken a Sweet Sixteen appearance, but the Horns crumbled against a program that entered Division I just eight years after not setting Division II on fire at any point.
Worse yet, Abilene Christian coach Joe Golding said his program was the worst in Division I before he built it into the killer we witnessed Saturday night.
While we gladly credit ACU for earning that massive first-round upset, let’s do so with the understanding that the Wildcats had no business beating Texas. That falls on Smart, who will somehow try and explain to UT President Jay Hartzell and athletic director Chris Del Conte why he should return for a seventh season despite that goose egg in the NCAA win column.
Let’s also speak truth to what fans are feeling. They’re hurt. They’re embarrassed and, most of all, they’re really angry because they feel Shaka seduced them and fueled their audacity to dare and dream that something good just might happen after the conference tournament, only to plunge them back into the frustrating days of yesteryear.
It’s too bad this wasn’t all a dream, as senior point guard Matt Coleman III mentioned after the game. Nope, it was a real-life nightmare that played out in gruesome fashion against an opponent Texas would probably beat eight times out of 10. Unfortunately, this isn’t a best-of 10, but a best-of-one and the Wildcats earned it.
I don’t know what was worse — that Texas lost with a loaded roster that was projected by many national bracket enthusiasts to play deep into this tournament or that they gave fans hope only to take it away in front of a national television audience.
Up until Saturday night, it was a magical season. The Horns met all the challenges, staring down North Carolina to win the Maui Invitational, overcoming a COVID-19 outbreak that nearly derailed the conference season and finding their groove at the Big 12 Tournament.
So many tests passed to earn that No. 3 seed. Then, nothing.
"I told the guys the other day, 'You guys don't understand how hard that is to do,'' Smart said. "And we have earned that. Now we want to make the most of it and we weren't able to do that."
Smart had a lot to do with what got the Horns here. He pushed many of the right buttons by making post Jericho Sims a more integral part of the offense and by really getting the most out of sophomore gazelle Kai Jones. Greg Brown had his moments early but never caught up with the mental part of the game, and that will go down as a Smart failing. Brown played only six minutes in the final game. I suspect he’s already setting up training camp workouts for NBA scouts.
How the Horns, with all that momentum after the conference tournament, could pull such a no-show remains a bigger shock than anything we witnessed on opening weekend.
Coleman, Texas' spiritual leader and chief shot maker, played most of the night as if his hands were bathed in baby oil. He was responsible for seven of the 23 turnovers and that didn’t even include him inexplicably losing the ball while shooting a routine layup or his failure to block out Joe Pleasant, whom he fouled at the end to set up Texas’ doom.
Coleman threw himself onto the sword, saying he had failed Smart. He did, along with cohorts Courtney Ramey — who closed out his junior season by making just 2-of-21 field goal attempts over the final three games — and Andrew Jones, who was only 8-for-28 over the same time frame.
For what it’s worth, Coleman said he hasn’t yet decided if he will take advantage of the NCAA’s provision that would allow him to return for a fifth season, but the feeling here is that ship has sailed. Besides, if he did decide to return, there's no guarantee that the coach who recruited him as an eighth-grader will even be here.
Hope can be a cruel mistress and Smart, armed with one of the most complete teams in America, unintentionally put one over on the fan base. He gave it a reason to dream, then took it away before Longhorn Nation could even settle into the tournament.
After so many great moments this season, fans viewed that light at the end of a tunnel as a glorious postseason run and a sure sign that the program was back on track.
No one suspected it was a train.