The past year has been a difficult one for the University of Texas athletic program. The football team is in danger of suffering a losing season under second-year head coach Charlie Strong. Athletic Director Steve Patterson resigned in September amid growing dissatisfaction among boosters, athletic department employees and fans. Basketball coach Rick Barnes was fired following the 2014-15 season, despite taking the Longhorns to the NCAA Tournament 16 out of his 17 years at the school.
As a new season tips off for the Longhorn basketball team, there is an air of excitement the program hasn’t seen in several years. It goes beyond the usual addition of new players and natural optimism that comes with the start of each new season. The Longhorns also have a new coach in Shaka Smart. In six seasons at Virginia Commonwealth University, Smart compiled a 163-56 record and led the Rams to five NCAA Tournament appearances. In 2011, he took his squad to the Final Four, and the Rams are the only team besides Duke to have won at least 26 games each of the past six years.
“I’m really, really excited about being the head coach at the University of Texas,” Smart told reporters in October during Big 12 Media Day in Kansas City. “(The players) have really worked hard. I think they’ve been extremely receptive since day one, on April 3, when we arrived at Texas.”
The Longhorns return four starters from last year’s team, including guards Isaiah Taylor and Demarcus Holland, forward Connor Lammert and center Cameron Ridley. Holland, Lammert and Ridley are seniors, providing much-needed experience in the starting lineup. Smart isn’t inheriting a bad team. Under Barnes, Texas won three Big 12 regular-season titles, reached the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight twice and the Final Four once. During the 2009-10 season, the Longhorns were ranked No. 1 in the nation for the first time in school history.
After a disappointing 2014-15 season that saw the Horns finish 20-14 overall and 8-10 in the Big 12, and a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament, the school decided change was in order. Smart became a hot coaching commodity following his 2011 Final Four appearance at VCU, but turned down numerous offers from several schools before agreeing to come to the Longhorns this past April.
Upon his arrival at Texas, Smart laid out what he called his five core values for the basketball program: appreciation, enthusiasm, competitiveness, teamship, and accountability. In September, he and strength/conditioning coach Daniel Roose brought in Navy SEAL John McGuire to lead a special training session on improving communication, leadership and team-building skills. All players, along with members of the university’s coaching and support staff, were required to attend the three-day training. Smart and Roose brought the program to Texas after using it the past four years at VCU. Texas may be known as a football school, but if Shaka Smart has anything to say about it, the basketball team will be a major topic of conversation for some time to come.
ESPN.com contributed to this article.