As season goes on, Smart sees confidence improve

Akshay Mirchandani

Shaka Smart has the same outfit on game days.

The head coach typically takes off his jacket when the game tips off, and goes with the long-sleeved button-down and tie look.

But he also has something else on every time the Longhorns take the court — a plus sign written in marker on the top of his hand.

“It just reminds me to be positive,” Smart said. “I really think with all this stuff, you can see the glass half empty or half full.”

Some of Smart’s players, unprompted, have taken to writing a plus sign on their hands before games. The problem was, it took some time for the Longhorns to get to the point where they were naturally confident and positive.

When Smart took the job last April, the Longhorns were coming off a disappointing 20-14 campaign that led the program to part ways with head coach Rick Barnes. As he started working with the players, Smart noticed they blamed the former coaching staff for some past disappointments.

“That was a real red flag to me,” Smart said. “Because I knew that at some point we were going to have to take a level of accountability, all of us, for our own results.”

Smart initially stayed quiet, choosing to listen to what his players had to say rather than call them out immediately. But eventually, the team began the journey to instill a new sense of confidence and positivity, something Smart said is still a work in progress.

“It was just a weird dynamic because it was like a fake confidence, and everything’s fine now because we made a coaching change,” Smart said. “And I’m, like, ‘No, no, it’s not. You’ve got to address some of this stuff.’”

Still, the season hasn’t been without low points that hurt the team’s psyche. When senior center Cameron Ridley fractured his left foot, Smart said he had to pick the team back up again.

“I remember the day after Cam got hurt, me trying to cheer up [junior guard Isaiah Taylor],” Smart said. “And, you know how Isaiah is. He can be dramatic. But he basically had this look and this sentiment that this is really, really, really bad.”

The Longhorns’ newfound confidence has translated into big wins this season, including upsets over ranked opponents North Carolina and Iowa State. Texas is coming off a 1-1 road trip where it beat then-No. 6 West Virginia but fell to then-No. 3 Kansas.

But another shot to Texas’s nerves came on Jan. 9 when it lost on the road to TCU — the same team that visits the Frank Erwin Center on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. Since then, the Longhorns are 3-1, including two wins coming against ranked foes.

“Ever since then, we’ve made a conscious effort to come out aggressive,” senior guard Javan Felix said. “Not just in games, but everyday in practice so it can be a habit for us, and that’s been the biggest difference.”

Smart tried to make sure the team didn’t get down after losing to Kansas, telling them to be angry instead. But he doesn’t view the rematch with TCU as a “huge game” on the schedule.

“Someone said something a few weeks ago about a must-win. What does that even mean?” Smart said. “Does that mean if the team doesn’t win, we’re all going to go out back and be executed?”