Despite early loss, Smart’s reign brings hope

Reagan Stuart

Despite ending on a sour note, basketball head coach Shaka Smart’s first year at UT has been a resounding success. Smart promised an exciting brand of basketball on the 40 Acres, a change from the plodding style of previous coach Rick Barnes. Though faced with significant challenges, he showed himself to be the right man for the job.

Smart would have been hard-pressed to match Rick Barnes’ feat of winning the Big 12 in his first year. Smart inherited a roster from Barnes that had been mostly disappointing in 2014-2015, and lost 7-footer Myles Turner, a likely NBA first team rookie. The roster’s emphasis on size over speed did not suit Smart’s signature “havoc” style, known for its fast pace. Given the team’s brutal schedule, it would not have been surprising if the season had turned into a development project instead of an effort to compete in the NCAA Tournament.

But Smart did not allow the team to quit. Junior point guard Isaiah Taylor, who had shown flashes of brilliance in his first two years, emerged as one of the best players in the conference, winning first team 

All-Big 12 honors. When starting center Cameron Ridley broke his foot just before conference play, senior Prince Ibeh was thrown into the fire. Though Ibeh played just 10 minutes per game last season, Smart helped him become the Big 12 defensive player of the year. 

More than anything, Smart pushed his players to play hard, a feat Barnes struggled to accomplish in his last years at Texas. Smart accomplished this attitude by developing his relationships with the players beyond just player-coach. After the loss to Northern Iowa, Taylor said of Smart, “He’s been a great mentor to me, a great mentor to the rest of our team. He’s been like a father figure to us both on and off the court. He’s made us all better.” This is high praise, especially considering Taylor and Barnes did not always get along well last season. 

Smart also managed to connect to the student fans better than Barnes did. Before the game against No. 3 Oklahoma, Smart came to greet the students camped outside the Frank Erwin Center. They responded emphatically when he stopped to yell “OU sucks!” Despite falling behind early, the team rallied behind fan support, using a late 22-0 run to earn a 76-63 victory. After the game, senior forward Connor Lammert remarked, “There was one time I heard the crowd louder than it’s ever been.” The attitude change Smart sparked within the players clearly is clearly contagious. 

In coming seasons, fans can expect even greater success as Smart fills the roster with his players. More than that, fans can look forward to the development of a more vibrant basketball culture. I’ve said before that sports can be a unifying force, and Smart’s ability to overcome adversity and his drive to succeed can serve as an example for the whole university.

Stuart is a Plan II and business honors sophomore from Lubbock.