On Sunday, Texas men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart punctuated a weekend that included a thrilling victory at West Virginia — cancer survivor Andrew Jones made the winning 3-pointer — by playing in the snow with his daughter during a rare winter snowstorm in the Lone Star State.
“My daughter has never lived in a cold climate, and she’s maybe once or twice seen snow,” Smart said during his news conference on Monday. “I wanted to make sure we got that done [Sunday].”
While this season’s 10-1 start for the Longhorns has turned Smart into a strong contender for national Coach of the Year honors, the unbridled joy has only come in spurts since his arrival at Texas.
In a previous era, Smart’s run at VCU turned him into the sport’s hottest target. After leading the Rams to the Final Four in 2011, Smart was tied to multiple openings; indeed, he was “The Bachelor” for college basketball. When he arrived in Austin, the narrative was that he had picked the Longhorns, not the other way around.
Entering his sixth year, however, the scrutiny from fans has focused on his two NCAA tournament appearances and zero victories. Toward the end of last season, rumors about his future and their connection to an eight-figure buyout prompted a response from Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte.
“Shaka’s our coach,” Del Conte told the Austin-American Statesman last season. “Nothing’s changed. We won five of the last six down the stretch, finished third in the conference. We have a good team coming back. Nothing’s changed on my end.”
This season, Smart appears to have a roster that is capable of winning a national championship. Smart recently handed Kansas‘ Bill Self his worst loss at Allen Fieldhouse, and the Longhorns are currently listed as a No. 1 seed in Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology.
Greg Brown and Kai Jones are top-25 NBA prospects, per ESPN’s latest draft rankings. The Longhorns are top 15 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency on KenPom, and four players are averaging double figures.
Every college basketball coach is defined by postseason résumé, and Texas hired Smart to guide the program to contention, something Rick Barnes did with two Elite Eight appearances and a Final Four run during his time in Austin. It’s fair for fans to expect NCAA tournament success at a Power 5 school that has proved it can reach those heights.
Yet, if Texas had surrendered to the outside noise and dismissed Smart, it would not have enjoyed this year’s success. Sometimes, patience pays off. Athletic directors have never faced more pressure to react to subpar seasons than they do in the age of social media.
But what’s realistic for Texas, a team that hasn’t reached the second weekend since 2008? Texas Tech, Houston and Baylor have all emerged as national title contenders, but Smart continues to recruit top-100 talent and compete in the Big 12. He is assembling teams that can compete. Would another coach immediately change that?
Also, what’s a reasonable period to await success? Jay Wright’s Villanova teams made the NIT during his first three seasons. By his fifth year, however, he had reached the Elite Eight. Mike Krzyzewski hadn’t been past the second round before reaching the national championship game in his sixth year at Duke.
If this Longhorns team achieves its potential, which includes a possible run in March and a Big 12 title, Smart will permanently rewrite the narrative.
“I think any team that is able to have team success, the No. 1 ingredient has to be the common goal and being connected around that goal,” Smart said.
He added that the bond with this current group is strong and consistent. Perhaps those qualities will lead to his best season in Austin. Longhorns fans should be glad he was given the opportunity to reach this point.
Smart isn’t the only coach who might deserve more patience from the fan base. Here is a list of coaches who’ve faced scrutiny but could turn things around in the coming years, if given the opportunity.
Archie Miller, Indiana (63-48, fourth season)
You have to spend some time on Indiana’s campus to understand the devotion, pressure and power of Hoosiers basketball. I once covered a game in Bloomington that was played when Assembly Hall was three-fourths full during an ice storm that included significant power outages elsewhere in the region. Indiana fans didn’t care. That’s their commitment to this program. The noise around Miller isn’t about some ongoing search for Bob Knight’s true heir. That’s old news. But fans know the program has all the resources a coach needs to build a Big Ten contender.
The Hoosiers have quality wins this season (versus Stanford, Providence, Maryland) and the juice to put together a résumé worthy of the NCAA tournament. Losing Armaan Franklin to injury has already hurt Miller’s squad, but Indiana is 8-5, a tally that includes overtime losses to Wisconsin and Florida State. There are some positive signs amid the inconsistency that has bothered Indiana fans throughout Miller’s tenure. With the potential return of Trayce Jackson-Davis and the addition of grad transfer Parker Stewart, Indiana could enter next season — hopefully, a more traditional season — as a serious threat to win the league.
Patrick Ewing, Georgetown (52-54, fourth season)
It’s never a good look when multiple players leave a program. Decisions made by Mac McClung, James Akinjo and other former Georgetown players only encouraged doubts about the stability around Ewing and his team. Combine that with a 3-8 start this season — on the heels of last year’s 15-17 finish — and the emotions and angst are understandable. But it’s also important to know why the Hoyas hired Ewing: to extend the reach and impact of the Georgetown brand.
Signing five-star prospect Aminu Mohammed (No. 18 in the 2021 class) and two other four-star recruits for next season suggests Ewing’s name still carries weight. When he took the job, the No. 1 question about him centered on his ability to walk into living rooms around the country and convince kids who didn’t see him play in the NBA to join him at Georgetown. The latest class suggests he can still do that. That’s why the real scrutiny should come next season, once the team reloads with a strong recruiting class.
Richard Pitino, Minnesota Golden Gophers (137-112, eighth season)
Pitino has been the subject of hot-seat rumors for nearly half his tenure in Minnesota. But athletic director Mark Coyle hasn’t budged on him. This season’s 10-4 start validated that confidence, and Pitino’s third NCAA tournament appearance would quiet some of his doubters. The Gophers have to understand what they are. They’ll almost always lose the five-star local products to the blue bloods — think Tyus Jones, Tre Jones, Matthew Hurt, Jalen Suggs, possibly Chet Holmgren (No. 1 recruit in the 2021 class on ESPN.com) — but the Minnesota high school talent pool is growing. Combine a few strong recruits with players on the transfer market each season and you can make the tournament. Pitino’s top three scorers this season — Both Gach (Utah), Marcus Carr (Pitt) and Liam Robbins (Drake) — started their careers elsewhere.
I’m not sure how things would dramatically change for the Gophers if they decided to fire Pitino. They brought in Tubby Smith. Same hurdles. This is a program that can make the NCAA tournament every few years and, in a handful of special seasons, might win a game or two. The speculation around Pitino should be rooted in that reality.
Cuonzo Martin, Missouri Tigers (57-48, 4th season)
Based on the questions I’ve received during my appearances on a Kansas City radio station, I think there has been some concern around Missouri following a double-digit loss to Mississippi State last week. But the Tigers have already put back-to-back losing seasons behind them with a strong start that has included wins over Oregon, Arkansas and Illinois. I’ll always believe that Martin’s entire tenure would have been altered by a healthy Michael Porter Jr., who only played a handful of games during the 2017-18 season because of injuries. His brother, Jontay Porter, tore his ACL and MCL prior to the start of Missouri’s 2018-19 campaign. You can’t ignore those injuries when judging Martin’s term, which includes an appearance in the 2018 NCAA tournament.
Right now, the Tigers are putting together a résumé worthy of a postseason appearance. Remember, the Tigers are just four years removed from Kim Anderson’s 8-24 campaign amid the NCAA penalties accrued under Frank Haith. Missouri can be competitive this season in a wide-open SEC following a couple of rough years. That’s why Martin is a good example of what happens when administrators give a coach the time he needs to build.