The subdued and desolate Texas locker room in the wee hours of Saturday after the last-second loss to Northern Iowa was a long way away from the loud and positive practices.
A long way away from the program-cementing win against North Carolina. A long way away from the 22-0 run against Oklahoma that rocked the Erwin Center.
But through the soft voices and held-back tears, a common theme rang loud and clear.
Despite the shocking and disappointing end, Shaka Smart is the right man for the job.
“He puts so much into this,” senior guard Javan Felix said. “He loves us genuinely, and he’s going to fight for us, and he’s going to give us what we need, and he’s going to put us in the right position, and we love that.”
Smart’s first season at the helm featured all sorts of ups and downs. He picked up two off-court wins early on, convincing the seniors to believe in him and keeping junior guard Isaiah Taylor from leaving early for the NBA.
Finding, however, on-court success proved to be a challenge. The Longhorns struggled to a 2–3 record in an early season schedule that sent them traveling over 17,000 miles before their second home game.
But on Dec. 12, Smart cemented his place at Texas. Felix’s buzzer-beater took down then-No. 3 North Carolina in front of a national audience and gave Smart his first signature win.
The moment, though, was fleeting.
Over two weeks later, senior center Cameron Ridley went down with a broken left foot, and the team nearly went down with him. The Longhorns lost three of their next four games, including a loss on the road at TCU.
But Smart didn’t let the team get down. Instead, he continued to keep them focused on the process of winning. The result: The Longhorns won seven of their next eight games and went from a bubble team to a sure lock for the tournament.
The Longhorns finished 4–6 in their last six games, including two blowout losses to Baylor and a rough 30-point loss to Kansas. Northern Iowa’s Paul Jesperson’s buzzer-beating half-court shot ensured that Texas wouldn’t advance past the first round of the NCAA tournament for the second-straight year.
But after the game, the seniors were just as disappointed not to play for Smart again as they were to end their Texas careers, a testament to what Smart worked for in his first year in Austin.
Smart, in turn, said they were the ones who made his first year so successful.
“What’s happened over the course of the last several months is those guys have grown to take on a level of accountability and understand that they’re probably — no, they definitely have to be the biggest part of their own success, and I think those guys have learned that,” Smart said.
Smart currently stands at 356 days on the job at Texas, but now he faces a challenge as tough as the one he took on from day one.
The Longhorns will have to replace five seniors who played key roles in their final year and potentially Taylor, who once again faces a decision to bolt for the NBA or come back for his senior season.
Texas counters with a top tier recruiting class coming in next year, one which could include five-star Jarrett Allen from Austin.
Still, no matter who stays, comes or goes, the starting lineup will look much different at the start of next season. But Smart isn’t worried about starting with almost a clean slate again. Instead, he sees it as an opportunity.
And if there’s anyone that can confirm it, it’s those who held back tears in that quiet Texas locker room, disappointed not to suit up for Smart again.
“The program is going uphill,” senior guard Demarcus Holland said. “I think they’ve got something special in the staff that’s here right now.”