Shaka Smart lost his way by abandoning what made him successful

Texas Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart watches action during game against the Oklahoma Sooners on January 8, 2020, at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, TX. (John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It’s the equivalent of Tony Bennett suddenly embracing a freewheeling, up-tempo approach or Jim Boeheim ditching his 2-3 zone to play exclusively man-to-man. 

Shaka Smart, the promising coach who made HAVOC his trademark over six highly successful seasons at VCU, has all but abandoned that chaotic, swarming full-court press since coming to Texas almost five years ago. 

Texas hired a coach who deployed a mixture of traps and presses to lead the nation in turnovers forced three straight years. The Longhorns got a coach who seldom calls for full-court pressure except when trailing late in a game. 

Texas hired a coach whose teams scored in bunches by converting steals into transition layups. The Longhorns got a coach whose teams rely on a stagnant half-court offense.

Texas hired a coach known for an intimidating, relentless style of play. The Longhorns got a coach who seems to have lost his identity. 

In retrospect, Smart’s decision to discard what made him successful might be the biggest reason why his Texas tenure has thus far fallen short of expectations. Smart has failed to match the success he had at VCU despite now being at a program with superior talent, endless resources and greater pedigree.

A listless 97-59 loss on Monday night at West Virginia dropped this season’s Texas team to 12-6 overall and 2-4 in the Big 12. The Longhorns aren’t out of NCAA tournament contention yet by any means, but their only win against a top-75 team in the NCAA’s NET rankings came at Purdue way back on Nov. 9.

If Texas fails to land an NCAA bid in March, it would be the third time that has happened in five seasons under Smart. The Longhorns made the NCAA tournament but failed to win a game in 2016 and 2018. 

Smart’s lack of high-level success so far at Texas is a stunning outcome given how much he accomplished at his previous stop. Power-conference athletic directors fawned over Smart after he followed up a miracle 2011 Final Four appearance by leading VCU to three KenPom top 30 finishes and four seasons with 26 or more victories. The year he left VCU, his most decorated recruiting class yet was set to arrive.

At his introductory news conference in Austin five years ago, Smart set a goal of competing for championships at Texas and defiantly shot down any talk that HAVOC wouldn’t be successful in a power conference. “It translated pretty well a few years ago in San Antonio,” quipped Smart, referring to VCU’s 2011 Final Four run.

Yet for all Smart’s talk of replicating the fast-paced, aggressive style he favored at VCU, that plan for the most part has not materialized.

Smart first began to stray from his roots during his first season in Austin when he inherited a roster featuring a quartet of lumbering big men. Rather than trying to implement his system without the requisite parts, Smart responded by shelving his signature press and dialing back his aggressiveness in an effort to play to the strengths of his skilled front line. 

Even after filling the roster with his own recruits, Smart has been hesitant to unleash full-court pressure the way he once did.

It appears Smart believes the marquee recruits he chases at Texas prefer a traditional, NBA-conducive system to the all-out, helter-skelter style that propelled VCU to national relevance. Perhaps Smart also questions whether he can implement HAVOC as successfully with freshmen and sophomores as he did with the junior- and senior-laden teams he coached at VCU.

A parade of four- and five-star prospects have signed with Texas under Smart, but recruiting success hasn’t translated into top-three Big 12 finishes or NCAA tournament runs. Big men Mohamed Bamba, Jarrett Allen and Jaxson Hayes each left for the NBA after just one collegiate season, while guard Andrew Jones is still trying to recapture his previous form after sitting out most of two seasons while battling leukemia. 

Playing at a plodding tempo also has further exposed the lone weakness Smart consistently displayed at VCU: An inability to draw up plays to generate points against a set defense. Year after year, Texas’ offense struggles to generate easy baskets, yet the Longhorns have finished 300th or slower nationally in tempo three times under Smart and remain averse to ratcheting up the defensive pressure.

Could Texas have won more games if Smart had targeted prospects who were not as decorated in high school but fit his former system? Long, athletic guards and forwards who can switch all screens? Players who were comfortable staying in college for three or four years and would embrace a style of play that doesn’t mirror the NBA?

In hindsight, probably, though admittedly Texas’ ceiling might not always have been as high.

West Virginia excelled unleashing full-court pressure against Big 12 guards for a few seasons by identifying ball-hawking guards and mobile big men who could run the floor and protect the rim. Texas would have needed to match or exceed the Mountaineers’ level of success, or Smart would have faced criticism for not living up to expectations at a Texas program better equipped to attract five-star talent.

At the very least, it’s safe to say that Texas couldn’t have looked any worse Monday night in a full-court press than it did playing its typical style. The Longhorns trailed by 25 at halftime and never mounted any semblance of a rally, prompting one of the school’s greatest ex-players to tee off on Twitter.

It was only five-plus years ago that Smart was mentioned alongside Brad Stevens as the most promising young coaches in basketball. 

Of course, they’ve since taken divergent paths. One has Boston in the hunt for an NBA title. The other is in a fight to keep his job.

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