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Shaka Smart’s Slow-Burning Texas Revolution

The former VCU coach took his time finding a major program to call home. Now in Year 2 at Texas, Smart is ready to turn his vision of Longhorns basketball into a reality.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Shaka Smart picked Texas very carefully. Ever since leading 11-seed VCU from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011, he had been one of the hottest names in the coaching industry. Over the years, he’s been linked to every high-profile opening in college basketball, and he turned them all down. He watched his two predecessors at VCU, Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant, jump at their first chance at a high-major job, only to see their careers stagnate. Capel was fired after five seasons at Oklahoma, and has been an assistant at Duke since 2011; Grant was fired after six seasons at Alabama, and is now an NBA assistant, joining his old boss at Florida, Billy Donovan, in Oklahoma City. Shaka was playing the long game, waiting for the perfect opportunity, and he thought he found it in 2015. Rick Barnes was fired from Texas; a job that had been locked up for nearly two decades was suddenly open.

The bloom had fallen off the rose by the end of his tenure in Austin, but Barnes was the most accomplished coach in program history. He missed the NCAA tournament only once in 17 seasons, and in 2003 he led the school to its first Final Four in over 50 years. However, judging what he did at Texas is difficult because the nature of the job changed under his feet. The state’s population has almost doubled since 1980, while the explosion of an AAU basketball infrastructure over the last generation turned it from a backwater to a powerhouse. The state produced 12 McDonald’s All Americans in the 17 years before Barnes took the Texas job, and 38 in his 17 years in Austin. As of the middle of the 2015 season, there were 22 Texas-born players in the NBA, second only to California. Recruiting in basketball is much less localized than it is in football, but enough kids want to play close to home that the Texas coach can build an elite program just by signing players who grew up within a few hours’ drive of Austin.

Barnes, who has a famously prickly personality, never developed much of a relationship with the power brokers in the Dallas and Houston AAU circles. As a result, Texas has had only three in-state McDonald’s All Americans on its roster between 2005 and 2014 (D.J. Augustin, Cameron Ridley, and Myles Turner; C.J. Miles originally committed, but elected to enter the 2005 NBA draft instead). Instead, he used the resources available to him as a coach at one of the most profitable athletic programs in the country to search far and wide for players. The amount of NBA talent he coached at Texas is eye-popping, from Kevin Durant to LaMarcus Aldridge, Turner, Tristan Thompson, T.J. Ford, Avery Bradley, Cory Joseph, Augustin, Boobie Gibson, and P.J. Tucker. However, the teams he assembled always seemed to be less than the sum of their parts, and they became known for an ugly brand of basketball that didn’t put his players in the best position to succeed. Texas made only one Sweet 16 in his final nine seasons in Austin, despite having nine NBA draft picks in that time.

Smart had nearly the opposite situation at VCU. A couple of his players have gotten cups of coffee in the NBA, but Troy Daniels is the only one who has been able to stick in the league so far, and he is playing on his fourth team in three seasons. However, despite the lack of elite players, Smart took the baton passed to him from Capel and Grant and turned VCU into one of the best mid-major programs in the country. His teams became famous for the HAVOC press, a full-court defensive scheme that pressured opposing ball handlers for 94 feet, trapping and turning them over in an attempt to get the game going as fast as possible. Smart had his players conditioned to an almost maniacal level, and he counted on them being able to win a game of endurance in the second half.

For as well as VCU played in the regular season under Smart, there was a ceiling to what the Rams were able to do in March. Increasing the number of possessions in a game with pressure defense can be extremely effective, until you face a team that can handle the increased pace and has more individual talent. The common theme of VCU’s losses in the tournament under Smart was running into NBA-caliber ball handlers who could handle the press. In 2011, the Rams lost to Butler’s Shelvin Mack. In 2012, they ran into Indiana’s Victor Oladipo. In 2013, they were blown out by a Michigan team with a backcourt of Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas. In 2015, his final game at VCU, they lost a nail-biter to Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell.

Smart came to Texas to coach that type of elite talent, but that was never going to happen right away. With Myles Turner leaving for the NBA after only one season of college, the best returning player in his first season in Austin was Isaiah Taylor, an athletic point guard whose lack of a 3-point shot prevented him from being more than a fringe NBA prospect. Smart inherited a roster full of Barnes’s recruits, and he had to make it work with players who didn’t necessarily fit the way he wanted to play. The Longhorns’ rotation featured two traditional centers, Cam Ridley and Shaquille Cleare, and a stretch 4, Connor Lammert; asking them to sprint the length of the court playing defense would have been cruelty at best, insanity at worst. Smart went with a hybrid approach, and the team ended its season with a 20–13 record, losing in the first round of the tourney on a shot that will live forever in March Madness montages, a game-winning half-court heave from Northern Iowa at the buzzer.

To see what Smart’s schemes could look like with elite players running them, you had to go to the FIBA Americas U18 championship in Chile this summer, when Smart’s Team USA roster blitzed opponents off the floor. No one looked better in that setting than Markelle Fultz, who is playing for Washington this season, and who solidified his position as the front-runner to be the no. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft. At 6-foot-4, Fultz is an elite athlete with a well-rounded offensive game who has everything you would want in a point guard, and letting him hound smaller and slower guards and then push the ball the other way in a wide-open offense that spread the floor was almost unfair.

Smart’s signature recruit in his first two seasons at Texas is freshman Jarrett Allen, another one of his players from that U18 team. A five-star recruit from the Austin area, Allen is a prototypical modern big man, more comfortable operating on the perimeter than wrestling in the post on both sides of the ball. At 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, Allen can switch screens and stay in front of much smaller players, and he is at his best when he is making plays on the move and finishing at the rim. He is widely projected as a lottery pick in 2017, and playing in Smart’s up-tempo system should boost his statistics and showcase the things he does well for NBA decision-makers.

Whether or not Texas can live up to expectations this season will depend on the backcourt, where the Longhorns have to replace Taylor, who declared for the NBA draft but wound up going undrafted. Trying to fill the gap will be Eric Davis Jr. and Kerwin Roach Jr., two sophomores who flashed a lot of potential last season but struggled as decision-makers, with both averaging more turnovers per game than assists. The other player to watch in that department is freshman Andrew Jones, a McDonald’s All American from the Dallas area who projects as a combo guard. If the Longhorns can find a guard who can control the tempo and get Allen the ball in the right places on the floor, they should have enough shooting and speed at the other positions in the lineup to be very dangerous.

The player who could really take the program to another level is still a year away. Smart has aggressively pursued Matt Coleman, a more traditional point guard who shared a backcourt with Fultz in Chile, dating back to his time at VCU. Last month, he hosted Coleman on a recruiting visit in Austin; the point guard was joined by five-star center Mohamed Bamba, one of the other big-name prospects from Smart’s U18 team, and both would be excellent fits with the program Smart is trying to build. The final piece of the puzzle in the 2017 recruiting class could be Jarred Vanderbilt, a five-star, 6-foot-8 small forward from the Houston area. Signing any blue-chip recruit is difficult when operating in a cutthroat, anything-goes recruiting environment that might as well be straight out of Westworld, but Smart at least has a chance at those three now that he is at a bigger school than VCU.

It’s all on the table for Smart at Texas. He has access to one of the richest talent pools in the country, which he can supplement with players he has coached with Team USA, and he can offer them a fast-paced style of play that is uniquely suited to leveraging their athletic gifts. There’s also a massive hole at the top of the Big 12 waiting to be filled, with Kansas having a claim to the past 12 conference titles under Bill Self. There’s no UNC to Kansas’s Duke or UCLA to its Arizona, and Self has been able to dominate programs who didn’t have the talent to compete with Kansas or the coaching to get the most out of what they had. If Smart can square that circle, he could awaken what has long been a sleeping giant of a program. He waited a long time for this opportunity. With a clear vision, and full control of the team, it’s finally here.