The Texas Longhorns’ recent 74-72 loss to #10 West Virginia this weekend was another frustrating loss in what already seems like a lost season.
It was the type of game that has defined the Longhorns recently, and head coach Shaka Smart’s tenure thus far in Austin.
Remember when Smart lit the college hoops world on fire during the 20102011 season, when his infectious energy and coaching acumen became the story of March Madness? His VCU Rams barely made it into the tournament as members of the “First Four”, and then proceeded to beat USC and then upset 6th-seeded Georgetown and the 3rd-seeded Purdue Boilermakers to advance to the Sweet 16.
They went on to beat Florida State in overtime to earn VCU’s first trip the Elite Eight, where they then smacked Kansas, the tournament’s top overall seed, 7161, earning a berth in the Final Four, where they eventually fell to Butler, 70-62.
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It was a fairy tale ride that saw Smart’s public profile grow exponentially. Over the course of three weeks, he went from an obscure coach in the Colonial Athletic Association to the hottest coaching prospect in the country. In 2013, he became the second youngest active coach to win 100 games and cashed in his chips to take the job at the University of Texas in the spring of 2015.
At VCU, his teams were incredibly fun to watch as they ran the floor on offense and played defense with reckless enthusiasm. Their full and half-court press continually disrupted their opponents’ offenses to the point of earning the nickname, “Havoc.”
In Smart’s first season at Texas last year, they finished with a record of 2013 and went 117 in conference, finishing in fourth place. They lost in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tourney to Baylor and dropped their opening round game in the NCAA Tournament against Northern Iowa.
It seemed like a good first step for Smart to get the program moving in the right direction. This year, though, Texas has taken a step back.
The havoc that Smart once unleashed on his opponents is nowhere to be found, and havoc would actually be an apt description of what’s been happening with the program lately. Expected to immediately turn Texas into a force on the college hoops landscape, things have not gone as planned.
Right now, they’re 7-10, having lost to the likes of Northwestern, Colorado, UT-Arlington, Kent State and TCU among others. And don’t look now, but the cream of the Big 12 crop is coming up with games against two powerful conference foes in Baylor and Kansas.
Watching this Longhorns squad’s erratic point guard play and overall sloppiness has been tough. They’re a longshot to make the NCAA Tournament and as the university is making grandiose plans to build a new basketball arena, Smart’s seat is beginning to get warm.
But today, he got the biggest win thus far during his tenure at Texas, securing the commitment of one of the country’s most exceptional point guard prospects in Oak Hill Academy senior Matt Coleman.
I spent a few days with the Oak Hill squad last winter for a feature story that I was writing about the program and their head coach Steve Smith, and, despite having a roster littered with elite D-I prospects, no player impressed me with their on-court stylistics more than Coleman.
Choosing Texas over Duke, Coleman will be handed the keys from Smart at the very moment he arrives on campus, given free reign to orchestrate the Longhorn attack.
Coleman is so smooth at times that you can momentarily lose sight of his exceptional athleticism. He is a marvel to watch in the open floor with his insane speed. His attack game off the bounce is ridiculous and the slick lefty, with his rare boogie, next-level handles, stutter moves and crisp crossovers, can get to the rim against any defender that stands in front of him. He can elevate with the greatest of ease and has a crafty array of floaters in his arsenal as well.
His drive-and-dish game is superb, his mid-range weaponry is rare, his vision and dime skills are very fun to watch, and his lateral quickness, quick hands, willingness and hunger as a perimeter defender make him a certifiable menace on D.
Coleman was vacillating between Texas and Duke, but Smart, who has known Coleman, a Norfolk, Virginia, native, since his days at VCU along with coaching him with USA Basketball’s developmental program, ultimately won out.
“Shaka’s been recruiting me since the eighth grade when he was at VCU,” Coleman said today at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Masschusetts. “When he got the job at Texas, he called me right away and offered me a scholarship.”
“It’s the perfect fit. I’m a point guard who makes plays.”
And that is just what Shaka Smart and the Texas program need in order to rise above their current level of mediocrity to become the force on the college hoops scene that everyone envisioned when he left VCU.
If Smart and the Longhorns can parlay the Coleman signing into a recruiting coup of epic proportions that would include Harlem’s big man extraordinaire Mohamed Bomba and Brian Bowen, the exceptional small forward out of La Lumiere School in Indiana, Texas could be a Final Four contender as early as next year if the dominoes fall in their direction.
Coleman is the start of Smart’s Texas resurrection. If Bomba and Bowen follow suit, the Longhorns will be wreaking some big time havoc very soon.