When Shaka Smart was hired to become the Texas Longhorns’ new head coach, the move was hailed by many within the college basketball community, and rightly so. The success Smart had at VCU, given somewhat limited resources, remains rather incredible.
However, there are reasons for skepticism.
I touched on this when Smart was originally hired. Texas isn’t a place where landing top recruits and having them buy into a selfless system will be easy. Others have successfully pulled off similar feats, such as John Calipari convincing every All-American prospect in the land that playing team-first hoops will still lead to NBA lottery-pick status. However, that’s not the norm. One should not assume everything will work out.
Moreover (this is a pet peeve of mine), it is not as though Smart built VCU’s success from scratch. Last I checked, there was a fellow who got canned at Alabama who did marvelous things with VCU. (I still think Anthony Grant is a good coach, so don’t listen to me.)
Perspective is required here. Simply acting as though a great mid-major coach automatically means he can be a tremendous power-conference coach ignores a lengthy history of failures on the part of previous coaches who have made the same types of attempts.
Shaka Smart is also being viewed as an upgrade from Rick Barnes. The latter, who is definitely limited as an in-game coach, has been solely blamed for the Longhorns’ lackluster track record in recent years. Then again, folks are also ignoring that he led Texas to 17 NCAA Tournaments in 18 years, while reaching five Sweet 16s or better.
It wasn’t Barnes’ inability to develop players that did him in, either. As his time progressed at Texas, Barnes became a victim of his own success. His triumphs on the recruiting trail led to a rather good run as the head coach with the program. Accordingly, expectations were raised. Then, naturally, he failed to live up to them.
That’s a simple, brutal reality of sports at any level. To be honest, it was indeed Barnes’s time to exit the program. I’m not arguing against his hiring or saying he was given an unfair shake.
The point is: Shaka Smart has to face throughout his Texas tenure what Rick Barnes only had to deal with at the end of his stay in Austin. Smart will have to shoulder Barnesian expectations from the opening night of the season. Barnes didn’t face that kind of pressure until he had dramatically raised the bar at 40 Acres.
Many will be patient with Smart’s inaugural season. He should be afforded as much. Still, many more will quickly tire of the idea of Shaka Smart as the anointed savior of Texas hoops if he doesn’t immediately make things better than the Barnes era. That’s the issue in a nutshell.
Barnes wasn’t unsuccessful at Texas. Yet, because of his success during the early to middle portion of his stay, tied into the fact that it seemed the program was regressing towards the end, supporters of the Longhorns felt they needed to save the basketball program. They needed to intervene before the program reverted to second-fiddle status, playing little brother to the football program (which it will always be, but on a cultural level; second-fiddle in terms of achievement is a different matter).
Where will Shaka Smart start as far as the leeway he gets? How will he be treated in relationship to perceptions of what success really means for Texas basketball? Will the standards and measurements be realistic, or is he going to walk into a Charlie Strong type of situation? No one has the answers to those questions, but we will find out quickly if the Longhorns don’t come out of the gate curb-stomping opponents as though they owed them money.
Year one of Shaka Smart at Texas is about to begin. There is a palpable buzz surrounding the program, and the national audience can’t wait to partake of some HAVOC in Austin. Let’s just hope people realize that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it didn’t crash as quickly, either.
Patience, as often preached here, is a virtue. While I am not as sold on Smart at Texas as every other human walking the planet, let’s not overreact if year one doesn’t result in a trip to the Elite Eight, okay?