I promise that I am not doing this in an effort to try to be contrarian or cute, but Texas bringing Shaka Smart aboard doesn’t excite me in the ways it seems to have stirred the general public. This is the case even though almost every other aspect of this situation is telling me that I should be giddy about this move.
Let me explain…
Texas is viewed as a great gig for a variety of reasons. Having the resources that come with being the Longhorns’ coach; owning a huge recruiting base; and only having to deal with modest expectations from fans, are just some of the alluring prospects of the job.
Yet the Longhorns just ran off Rick Barnes, who went to 16 NCAA tournaments in 17 years. Barnes is viewed as a guy who can recruit rather well, but struggles in the realms of player development and managing various in-game scenarios. Regardless, Texas felt his time ran its course with the program… which should signal that the school’s own expectations for the program might be changing upwardly.
Programs without lofty expectations don’t can a coach who went to 16 NCAA tournaments in the 17 years he coached there, right?
In Barnes’ place comes a national darling, Shaka Smart. He’s beloved for good reason, too. In his six years with VCU, Smart went 163–56 (.744) and took the Rams to five NCAA tournament appearances, highlighted by their Final Four appearance in 2011.
With that being said, there’s a cautionary note to point out: Much as Barnes had been knocked for not dancing deep enough in March, Smart’s four other NCAA tournament runs at VCU fell short of the second weekend: two round-of-64 exists and two round-of-32 losses. There’s nothing horrible in that pile of accomplishments, but outside the magical Final Four run there’s not that much to show he’s more capable of doing what Barnes did — which is average a Sweet 16 or better appearance every (just over) three years.
It could be argued that Smart will now have better resources than he did at VCU, which will help him in ways that could help him make Texas better than it was under Barnes. That might very well be correct, but some other possibilities are getting ignored in favor of the nation’s blind love for him.
My biggest concern about Smart at Texas is the same thing that made him appealing in the first place: How he used the dynamic “Havoc” system at VCU to make the Rams regular NCAA tournament participants.
Something like Havoc works great in the mid-major to just below power-conference levels (think of the Atlantic 10, The American, and the Mountain West in this cluster of conferences, in addition to the classic mid-major leagues). At this level of stature, you can get a group of guys to play with no ego and buy into a coach’s system because they honestly have no other choice, and because the competition being played against in one’s conference isn’t as good or deep as it will be in a league such as the Big 12.
This brings up two issues if Smart implements a similar defense-minded and pressure-based system to Texas: Would he be able to recruit four- and five-star guys to play in that system, and — just as importantly — enough good players to have a deep enough bench to offset the fatigue it would cause on his roster?
It is easy to just assume Smart will land guys similar to or better than the ones Barnes got. At the same time, though, he is going to be pitching a very different system, one emphasizing defense-first and the larger idea that team takes priority over individual stats. While John Calipari has shown that it is possible to still lure top-tier guys to his program despite being put in a position where stats matter the least, that has been the outlier in terms of ways to get top prospects.
There’s also this weird idea that Smart “made” VCU into what it is, which has helped mythologize him as a coach. Before Shaka Smart took over the program in 2009, Anthony Grant — who just got canned at Alabama — went 76–25 (.752) and made two NCAA tournament appearances of his own. The cupboard wasn’t empty for Smart. It is not as though he took over NJIT and made it into a perennial player in the Big Dance.
Smart also never won an A-10 regular season title. In fact, he managed to win only one conference tournament title, which he earned this past season in a year when the Rams finished tied for fourth during the regular season. The Texas fan base is upset that the Horns won (or tied for) only three regular season titles during the Barnes era, but it is unreasonable to expect the Longhorns to now dominate the league the way Kansas has during Bill Self’s entire tenure just because Smart is beloved. He might be a Self-made man — having beaten Self to reach the Final Four with VCU in 2011 — but Smart’s powers are not as expansive as many would like to think.
Even if you are like me, and agree that the move to Smart from Barnes is at best lateral, Texas currently still sits behind the Jayhawks and Iowa State as the best program in the Big 12. Let’s say Smart turns out to be a home run, recruits way better than I think he will, and gets elite prospects to buy into the Havoc system. None of this will make Bill Self dumber or Fred Hoiberg increasingly more inept. There are still going to be plenty of obstacles to overcome.
I could be wrong (probably). Maybe I am over-thinking by worrying that Smart won’t be able to recruit as well as many presume he will. Even with that being said, though, that nasty subject of expectations — often used as a reason Texas is a good gig — might not be as generous to Smart as previously thought. He clearly can’t be seen as a success if he replicates Barnes’ accomplishments over a similar period of time.
That last detail is really important, because as much as we laud Texas for having patience, that no longer seems to be the case. The school wants to win more — and more often. Smart won’t have the same benefits Barnes had during his stay, which may very well be the worst part of this entire marriage.