What looked like a lost season that could have cost Texas head coach Shaka Smart his job may turn into his best coaching performance ever.
Just over two weeks ago, the Longhorns were 14–11 coming off a 29-point road loss to a struggling Iowa State team that had been lingering at the bottom of the Big 12 standings. Junior guard Jase Febres had just been presumably sidelined for the year with a knee injury. To make matters worse, junior forward Jericho Sims, undoubtedly Texas’ most valuable player, had been listed as out indefinitely with a back injury.
Then Texas started winning.
The red-hot Horns are on their longest Big 12 winning streak since the 2013-14 season, knocking off TCU, Kansas State, West Virginia, Texas Tech and Oklahoma to fight back into tournament contention. On Saturday against Oklahoma State, Smart and the revamped Longhorns will have a chance to further cement an NCAA Tournament bid.
“(I’m) really proud of the fact that our guys have not flinched when we’ve had any adversity,” Smart said after the upset win against Texas Tech. “We’ve had some injuries, we’ve had some games that didn’t go our way, but our guys have responded really, really well.”
It’s a response no one saw coming. Texas was forced to play with only eight scholarship players following Sims’ injury, including three freshmen who up to that point had mostly contributed in limited roles off the bench.
But it hasn’t mattered to Texas’ on-court leading guard trio of junior Matt Coleman, redshirt sophomore Andrew Jones and sophomore Courtney Ramey. Smart says the team has seen past the bad luck and said, “Win anyway.”
It also helps when a team has a consistent offensive output. At least one member of that trio has had a career night in each of Texas’ first three games of the winning streak. Coleman hit his first game-winner as a Longhorn on Tuesday night against Oklahoma. Jones tied his career high in back-to-back games last week and won Big 12 Player of the Week honors.
“I feel good,” Jones said. “I’m starting to find my footing a little bit. I’m starting to get my feet underneath me again. My body is starting to feel really good, and the coaches are starting to put a lot of confidence into me to be myself and be confident.”
Opposing coaches have noticed it too. Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard called Texas “one of the hottest teams in college basketball,” and took note of how Jones has led the team in its last few games.
“He’s one of the best players in the Big 12,” Beard said following the loss to the Longhorns at home. “He’s playing like an all-conference player. He’s a guy that I’ve always pulled for.”
While Beard may be pulling for Jones on Saturday, he’ll be hoping for an Oklahoma State upset. The Longhorns and the Red Raiders are tied for third in the Big 12, and Saturday’s results will have a direct effect on seeding for the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City next week.
If the Longhorns can just manage one more win, the light at the end of their tunnel should be shining bright.