Editor's Note: This story first appeared in The Daily Texan's February 2 print edition.
Shaka Smart set the tone right out of the gate Monday in his first media availability since returning from testing positive for COVID-19.
In the first question, the Texas men’s basketball head coach was asked how it felt watching the short-handed Longhorns lose to then-No. 24-Oklahoma while in isolation.
“Not very enjoyable,” Smart said bluntly.
A somber and, at times, frustrated Smart said he experienced “significant symptoms” while recovering from COVID-19. He got out of isolation Sunday for the team’s first practice with its full roster in 19 days.
The vast majority of the team was in quarantine or isolation at some point during that 19-day period, Smart said. One day, the head coach held a workout with only two players.
He emphasized a need to focus on the players’ health — both mental and physical — as the NCAA and Big 12 Conference march forward with college basketball through the pandemic.
“There needs to be extreme consideration given to the total effect of everything on the players, student-athletes, where the minds are at, how they’re doing with everything,” Smart said. “These guys have done such a good job just hanging in there and navigating through some challenging parts of this.”
Senior guard Matt Coleman said he had to quarantine for seven days and then play just a few days after coming back from isolation. Redshirt sophomore forward Brock Cunningham was allowed to be with the team during its last game against Oklahoma but had to watch from the bench as Texas lost.
Smart also said it’s been a challenging few weeks for the players and there have been other obstacles the public is not aware of.
But as long as the team passes its final COVID-19 tests Monday, everybody, including Smart, will be back just in time for the No. 6 Longhorns’ matchup against No. 2 Baylor on Tuesday at the Frank Erwin Center. The Bears have trounced every team they’ve played so far, winning by at least eight points in every game in their undefeated 16–0 season.
The quick turnaround from the first practice with the entire roster Sunday to playing the Longhorns’ toughest opponent this season Tuesday doesn’t faze Smart.
“We’re in the Big 12,” Smart said. “This is what you sign up for when you come to play or coach in this league.”
Texas’s first matchup against Baylor on Dec. 13 was postponed due to COVID-19 issues within the Bears’ program. Texas’s last scheduled game against Kentucky on Jan. 30 was canceled after a Wildcats player tested positive for COVID-19.
As frustrated as Smart was discussing the past few weeks, the head coach expressed equally as much gratitude for the opportunity to get back to the court.
“It's easy to take something for granted if you get to do it every day,” Smart said. “But if you go 19 days without having a full group together, then you get to be back, … yeah, it's a very emotional and moving thing even just to be out there trying to get better at guarding the ball screen or transition defense or whatever it may be.”
It’s clear Smart’s bout with COVID-19 and his time in isolation watching as his team floundered affected the head coach. But he said it was a “much longer conversation than we have time for now.”
Instead, Smart is focused on Baylor despite the events of the past few weeks.
“We’re just trying to roll with the punches, man,” Smart said. “We’re trying to do the best we can.”