Eyes of Texas on first-year Longhorns hoops coach Shaka Smart
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Shake Smart ignored the lure of bigger basketball programs for years to stay at Virginia Commonwealth.
Then Texas called.
The hottest young coach in the country since leading the Rams to the Final Four in 2011 was soon heading south deep into the heart of football country, to try to lift a potential basketball giant to new heights.
Texas wasn’t exactly dormant, just impatient. The Longhorns were an NCAA Tournament fixture in 17 years under Rick Barnes, who had even delivered a Final Four and two other trips to the regional finals.
But Texas had grown stale with early tournament exits in recent years. Barnes was fired and Smart was hired — both moves by athletic director Steve Patterson, who himself was forced out a month ago — to pump some energy into Texas.
Hired in early April, Smart has had several months to settle into his new environment and size up his roster and he prepares to bring his up-and-down-the-court style to the rugged Big 12.
"I think your biggest challenge in your first year is always implementing your philosophy, your way of doing things," Smart said. "People want to use the word `culture.’ Whether you’re taking over a veteran team or a younger team … Everyone is new to what you’re going to do at that new institution."
One key veteran who chose to stick with Smart was junior point guard Isaiah Taylor, who considered leaving for the NBA when Barnes was fired. His former teammate, Myles Turner, didn’t wait. Turner announced he was leaving the day after Barnes was fired and was drafted No. 11 overall.
Taylor said he came back to boost his draft potential and likes what he sees in Smart’s style of play. There was no recruiting pitch, just a promise of exciting basketball.
"He just said, whatever I do, he supports me. He didn’t convince me to come back," Taylor said. "It’s more fun, just knowing he trusts me. He really doesn’t give us limitations on offense."
Strong promised the Longhorns will play "fast."
"First and foremost, we want to be aggressive, connected and enthusiastic," Smart said. "The identity has to come first before the style of play. In terms of basketball, we certainly want to play faster than maybe they did in the past. We want to take advantage of some of the speed of our guards."
A few things to watch at Texas this season:
BACKCOURT SPEED: Taylor is a veteran who can pick apart defenses with his drives to the basket. Last season’s leading scorer will be paired with freshman Kerwin Roach, who Smart said could potentially be the best player on the team.
"In Isaiah Taylor and Kerwin Roach, we have two of the quicker guards in college basketball," Smart said. "Now, we’ve got to utilize that quickness and make the most of it."
DEFENSIVE MUSCLE: If the Longhorns had a reputation under Barnes, it was their muscular defense. How that changes under Smart will be a curiosity for the entire Big 12. Last season, Texas was ranked No. 4 nationally in field goal defense (39 percent) and finished second in blocks (265).
SIZE MATTERS: Despite losing Turner, the Longhorns haven’t sacrificed any size. Texas still brings a lot of beef with 6-foot-10, 290-pound Cam Ridley, 6-11 shot blocker Prince Ibeh, and 6-10 sharp-shooter Conner Lammert. And they add 6-8 Shaquille Clear, a Maryland transfer who promises he’ll be "nasty" by the opening tip this season.
"He has an edge in him and we want to cultivate that," Smart said.
FAR FROM HOME: Texas opens the season Nov. 13 against Washington in Shanghai, China, then plays in a Thanksgiving week tournament in the Bahamas. And there’s a road trip to Stanford before Christmas.
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