When Shaka Smart was named the next head coach of the Texas men’s basketball program in 2015, there was much fanfare.
Smart was coming off an impressive six-year run at Virginia Commonwealth University, which included a Final Four appearance in 2011, and was headed to a Texas program with seemingly limitless resources. Many expected the Longhorns to become an instant contender in the Big 12.
What has happened instead during the first five years of his tenure has included two NCAA Tournament appearances with first round losses in both, an NIT title that excited very few and an 11–22 season. Most recently, the Longhorns lost to No. 3 Kansas after leading at halftime and were just dominated by No. 7 West Virginia in a 38-point defeat after being down 25 at halftime.
“I’ve got to do a better job of having our guys ready to stand up to them in a game like tonight,” head coach Shaka Smart said following the West Virginia game. “Regardless of where the game is and who the opponent is from our side, it starts with us.”
While both of the last two opponents were the class of the Big 12, Texas was in a position to compete in both games. Texas was down two points early to West Virginia before the Mountaineers went on a 28-2 run. Against Kansas, the game was tied at 54 with about five minutes to play. The Longhorns’ inability to generate offense in key moments doomed them.
“Credit to them, but I feel like at times we got a little stagnant,” junior guard Matt Coleman said following the close loss to Kansas. “We passed up a couple of good shots that we should have taken initially and ended up taking a worse shot.”
Even former players are beginning to vocalize their displeasure with the way the program has performed. Former NBA player T.J. Ford, who led the Longhorns to their last Final Four appearance in 2003, tweeted his frustration after the game.
“It’s very disappointing and disheartening to watch the direction Texas Longhorn (basketball) has now taken,” Ford tweeted. “I’ve never witnessed a blowout of this magnitude in BIG12 play like tonight.”
It is possible that Smart will be coaching for his job for the rest of the season. A losing record in Big 12 conference play would likely mean the Longhorns would be on the outside looking into the NCAA Tournament. However, a strong push to end the season with wins over some ranked Big 12 opponents could change the story. That push begins on Saturday against LSU.
LSU and head coach Will Wade present a unique challenge for the Longhorns. With 14 wins under their belt, including a perfect conference record, the Tigers are not your average nonconference opponent.
After the losses to Kansas and West Virginia, the importance of each game grows immensely. Now, every time the Longhorns step onto the floor, they’ll be playing for their postseason hopes.
“This has to be a turning point for us,” Smart said. “We can play a lot better than that, but we didn’t tonight. There are some reasons behind that, and those all need to be put out on the table and addressed. There’s certain things that if you don’t do them, you’re not going to win.”