As the final buzzer sounded at the close of a thrilling overtime Longhorn upset against West Virginia, head coach Shaka Smart breathed a sigh of relief. Texas basketball was on the bubble to make the NCAA tournament after failing to qualify in 2017 and the pressure was mounting on the third-year head coach, but this win was just enough to get the Longhorns to the big dance.
Two weeks later, Smart was sweating bullets again after the Longhorns blew a 14-point second-half lead before losing to Nevada in the Round of 64.
Now, as Shaka enters his fourth season, he has zero wins in the NCAA tournament to show for them, and the statement ‘Shaka is on the hot seat’ is no longer a hot take.
Here are the biggest storylines heading into Smart’s decisive year:
The Andrew Jones comeback, Roach’s summer scare
While junior guard Andrew Jones continues his courageous comeback from battling leukemia, it is unclear if he will be ready for the upcoming season. He has told Smart that’s his goal, but ultimately nothing is concrete.
Returning three premier starters in leading three-point shooter senior Kerwin Roach, leading assist man sophomore Matt Coleman and top returning scorer senior Dylan Osetkowski, Shaka will look to performances from his big three to save his tenure at Texas.
But one of the members of Smart’s core group had a scare this summer. While participating in a non-contact drill at the CP3 (Chris Paul’s) Elite Guard Camp, Roach sustained a torn meniscus. Roach underwent successful surgery, though, on Aug. 7, Texas Athletics announced.
Back to the good ol’ days
Mo Bamba’s departure also gives Shaka the opportunity to get back to his winning ways in a similar way he did at VCU: with an experienced core. This year’s team will not feature a young NBA Draft pick, but instead offers experience and chemistry.
When Smart took VCU to the Final Four in the 2010–2011 season, he had four seniors who contributed not only large amounts of minutes but provided veteran leadership. Texas has yet to benefit from this luxury during the Smart era.
Now that Smart and the Longhorns aren’t expecting to lose the best freshman at the conclusion of this season, as it has done for the past two seasons, this is his opportunity to finally build a complete team.
With Bamba gone, Smart finds himself with 7-foot hole to fill, likely with sophomore forward Jericho Sims, who backed up Bamba last season. While Sims isn’t as imposing as Bamba, he is an athletic, explosive and tenacious big man with a smooth pick-and-roll game alongside sophomore Matt Coleman.
Sophomores Jase Febres and Royce Hamm Jr. will also have an opportunity to compete to get large chunks of playing time as well.
Winning when it counts
Texas is yet to finish a season ranked under Smart since his arrival at Texas in 2015. The Longhorns also haven’t defeated a top-five opponent since December of Shaka’s first year.
With pressure mounting, Smart looks to secure his position with a bounceback season with the Longhorns.
Texas basketball followed a common theme in Texas athletics last season: almost. Texas almost beat Duke in overtime then nearly pulled off a phenomenal upset against Kansas. And Texas should have defeated Nevada to advance past the Round of 64 for the first time in five years.
Texas will have plenty of opportunities to right its wrongs, though. Running through the Big 12 gauntlet is a daunting task by itself, but with a non-conference tournament against North Carolina, UCLA and Michigan State on Black Friday, Texas’ schedule has top programs all over it.
It’ll be a long three months until Smart’s defining season begins, and the Longhorn fans who have grown impatient will look for Texas to eliminate its almosts.