Exactly 23 days ago, the Shaka Smart era at Texas looked like it was destined for the NIT. The Longhorns had just lost their third game in four days and their second straight on the road. They were 9-6 overall and 1-2 in the Big 12 with league losses to Texas Tech and TCU.
That was a bad spot to be in.
But fast forward a little than three weeks, and with a win on Monday night at No. 17 Baylor, suddenly the Longhorns not only have themselves sitting in a position where, barring some kind of collapse, they are almost assured of a trip to the NCAA tournament and now tied for second in the conference, just a game behind league leaders Oklahoma and West Virginia.
In Waco on Monday, it was a 67-59 win over the Bears that extended this run of success to six wins in seven games, a stretch that includes wins over Iowa State and at West Virginia. Throw in December’s win over North Carolina in Austin, and there aren’t many teams in college basketball with as many excellent wins as the Longhorns have.
Much of this run can be credited to the play of Prince Ibeh and Connor Lammert. Ibeh is suddenly playing like an athletic, 7-foot, 265 pound center should play. In his last four games, Ibeh is averaging 11.5 points, 8.5 boards and 4.8 blocks, which more than makes up for what the Longhorns lost when senior center Cam Ridley, who has having by far the best year of his career, was injured. Lammert, a 6-foot-9 lefty with three-point range, is brimming with confidence. He had 15 points and hit three threes on Monday night, including a three with less than a minute left that put Texas up 62-56.
Smart has an innate ability to build confidence in his players, and that’s really become clear with this Texas team in the last three weeks.
But he also deserves all the credit in the world for the way that he’s coached this team. Namely, it’s not ‘Havoc’.
That was his brand when he arrived in Austin. That’s what VCU did and that’s who Smart was as a coach. The entire city of Richmond, Virginia, embraced it and Smart totally built his roster around it.
But that’s not what this Texas team is doing. Smart easily could have given into his ego and played that all-out, full-court pressing style despite not exactly having the pieces to adequately do it. Instead, he’s tailored his offense and his defense to the pieces that he has available to him, and he does deserve credit for doing that.
And winning in the process.
People may not realize this, but when VCU made the Final Four in 2011, they did not run ‘Havoc’. That run wasn’t just a product of a system, a machine built around being more athletic, more physical and in better shape than their opponents. That was Shaka coaching up a team that played four-around-one offensively and got hot from three at the right time.
And while the season still has a long way to go, it’s hard not to look at what he’s gotten this team to do over the course of the last 23 days and not be impressed, with both his coaching acumen and his team.