KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Not long after last season ended with a NIT championship, Texas coach Shaka Smart sent out a group text to all his players. It was not punctuated with an LOL.
“Coach texted us all and asked, what was the recipe for the NIT?” guard Courtney Ramey said Wednesday at Sprint Center.
Talk about holding your breath while staring at the dot, dot, dot.
“We played loose and we just felt like we shouldn’t lose,” Ramey said. “We were embarrassed we made the NIT, but it’s still an opportunity to play. So if we go out each and every game with the mindset that we don’t want to lose, we’re going to do whatever it takes, I feel like a lot of our games can go the right way for us.”
Big 12 media day is no place to judge whether Smart’s fifth season in Austin will be any better than the previous four, although Texas fans are praying that’s the case. Some of those losses last season can be described with a well-known brown emoji.
Still, Smart wanted to know why the Longhorns struggled so much at times and then looked so good winning five straight in the postseason. Granted, it wasn’t the NCAA Tournament, but it was a postseason championship nonetheless.
“They probably felt like it was overkill,” Smart said. “But I wanted them to verbalize around each other what was different during those games than maybe some of our previous games.”
Texas’ five-game NIT run perfectly encapsulated the 2018-19 season. If those were the only five games you watched, it was the same as watching all 37.
There was that “are they really going to lose?” feeling against South Dakota State. UT’s Big 12 toughness was on full display against Xavier, a team that wanted to punk the Horns in their own building. Texas ran roughshod over Colorado, exorcised some demons against TCU and then just flat-out stomped Lipscomb.
Same as it was in Smart’s four previous season, it was never about athleticism. It was playing together, playing carefree basketball and going for the jugular.
“I was thinking this is what we need to do next year in terms of bouncing back and being more consistent,” guard Jase Febres said. “We found that spark late in the year, but it’s better than not finding it.”
If the team that showed up in New York had played that way all season, there’s no way the Horns miss the NCAAs.
“There’s a lot of games,” Ramey said before rattling off a list of missed chances. “You got the Radford game early in the season. You got the Michigan State game, us being up a lot of points. You got the Baylor game where we were pretty much leading the whole game. TCU at home, we came out lackadaisical.”
All were winnable games that turned into ugly losses.
“Those are games we wish we could have back,” Ramey said, “but we’re going to grow from it this year.”
The Longhorns have no one-and-done big man this season, at least that’s how it appears. Nobody, not Smart or the smart alecks in the peanut gallery, pegged Jaxson Hayes as a one-and-done freshman last season.
This team will go only as far as Ramey (6-3) and junior guard Matt Coleman (6-2) can take it.
Febres, a sometimes hot-and-cold 3-point specialist, is back for his junior season. Sophomore Gerald Liddell returns after flashing some skills in the NIT. Royce Hamm Jr., a 6-8 junior, has undeniable athleticism but sometimes can’t harness it in the right way.
And there’s Jericho Sims, the 6-9 big man who just got his driver’s license and is blossoming as an individual. “He’s kind of coming out of his shell more,” Smart said.
Kai Jones, a 6-11 freshman from the Bahamas, has turned heads in practice. So has 6-6 freshman Donovan Williams from Houston.
Smart believes this might be his best 3-point shooting team, but don’t clip the tags and keep the receipts for now. Texas actually led the Big 12 with 312 made 3-pointers last season, a figure inflated by the NIT run. Overall, the Horns finished fifth in 3-point shooting percentage (.347). Texas was seventh in scoring (70.8) and finished in the middle of the pack in shooting overall (.433).
“In the past, offensively, I feel like we got stagnant at times,” Coleman said. “I don’t feel, I know it’s different now. There’s a lot more movement, and that’s how it was toward the end of (last) year. A lot of guys playing off each other. That’s how we’ve started to practice and just taken ownership. That helps us be a better team.”
The Big 12’s preseason poll is no true barometer of success. Texas Tech was picked to finish seventh last season and split the league title with Kansas State. The Red Raiders then reached the national title game.
This season, Big 12 coaches picked Texas to finish fourth. The Associated Press Top 25 poll came out and the Longhorns did not receive a single vote. Not one. Kenpom’s analytics predicts Texas will go 18-12 and 9-9 in Big 12 play.
The Texas athletic department certainly isn’t pumped for the season. The marketing folks are doing backflips on Bevo Boulevard before football games. But the preseason basketball event, the Texas Tip-Off, got scrapped.
Asked if he was angered by that decision, Smart had a long pause before saying, “It’s fine. It’s not really where my focus is. I think they’re promoting basketball. I think they just decided not to do that specific event.”
It’s a critical season for Smart, who nearly landed on the chopping block last March.
In four seasons, the Horns have yet to win a single NCAA Tournament game under this head coach. Texas missed the tournament all together twice in that span, too. Smart is 71-66 at UT.
Athletic director Chris Del Conte backed Smart publicly and signed off on hiring Michigan assistant Luke Yaklich and Kansas strength coach Andrea Hudy. The school is expected to have a ground-breaking ceremony for its new basketball arena sometime in December.
Meanwhile, Smart’s digging into this new team, punching a shovel into their spirit and trying to unearth what lies underneath. More of that NIT-championship effort and energy is down there, waiting to be tapped, or so he hopes. Smart needs all of it.
“You’re either with it or not with us at all,” Coleman said. “We’re going to do this for each other, do it for Texas and do it because we want to win.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.