From the moment he walked onto the Forty Acres as the new men's head basketball coach, it was easy to tell that Shaka Smart was going to be a different coach than the one he was replacing. Though both Smart and former Texas Longhorns head coach Rick Barnes like to stress the importance of an intense defense, most of their comparisons stop there. During his short time at Texas, Smart has stressed confidence, connectivity, and focus from the players on his team. And the methods in which he coaches and connects with his players are seemingly very different than the coaching style of Texas' former head coach.
When Smart first took over as Texas men's basketball coach, he took over a team that at times had the mentality of a timid dog; a dog that often worried more about getting in trouble than running around enjoying life. As if they were playing with their tails between their legs, too often the Texas players would play timid in games under Barnes.
Though he didn't mention Barnes (for obvious reasons), current Texas big man senior Prince Ibeh did comment on the negatives of playing timid. During a press conference back in late January after one of his breakout performances against TCU, he was asked about his improved play after seeing his minutes increase once Cam Ridley went down with his injury.
"I would say just a lot of it had to do with me just knowing I'm going to be out there regardless. In the past, I played timid. When you think about trying to play mistake-free, that's when you make the most mistakes and you limit yourself," Ibeh said.
Instead of playing loose within the flow of the game, under Barnes players would hesitate before making plays. A player would get caught up in his own situation on the court instead of reacting to the nine other players on the floor. And from what it looked like, the players would exhibit this mentality knowing that if they messed up, there was a good chance they'd be yanked off the court for a sub at the next whistle. Too often, players were focusing on not making a mistake instead of making the play. And too often, this hindered the players and the overall success of the team.
Rick Barnes wasn't a bad coach for Texas. He was actually a good coach. He recognized talent when recruiting, he established a system and style of basketball that found success at various times during his tenure in Austin (including a trip to the Final Four in '02-03 season), and he helped take the Texas basketball brand to a level it had never been to before. And without Rick Barnes, Texas likely wouldn't have current and former NBA players like Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tristan Thompson, T.J. Ford, Avery Bradley, D.J. Augustine, Daniel Gibson, P.J. Tucker and Myles Turner (to name a few) as ambassadors for the school and basketball program. But for all the positive impacts Barnes had on the Texas basketball program, his main negative was negativity itself.
Unlike Barnes, Shaka Smart utilizes positivity when correcting negatives he sees. And though he's still extremely intense at practices and in games, he's intense in different ways and for different reasons than Barnes. His intensity is more of a competitive one instead of one weighted with anger or frustration towards his players. And sure, there have been and will be times when Smart gets frustrated with how his team is playing. But when times get tough, Smart seemingly approaches his players differently than their former coach. And it's an approach even the players don't appear to be quite used to yet.
After the heartbreaking loss to Oklahoma on Monday night, Smart had some interesting quotes on the type of reaction his players were expecting verse the type of reaction Smart gave them.
"I went back in the locker room after the game and the guys kind of had a look in their eye like they thought I was going to yell and scream at them, which I didn't." Smart said.
Mixed in with these quotes at his press conference after the loss, Smart also credited the play of Buddy Hield and the effort his own guys gave. But he went on to talk more about his own coaching style and why he thought his players were expecting an angry post-game rant.
"I don't know. Probably because they felt like we were up most of the game and we didn't do what we needed to do to win the game. Maybe they're still getting to know me. I'm not a big yeller and screamer after the game because I don't know really what that does. I just want to make it really, really clear to these guys why we did what we did and what we can do to learn and grow," Smart said as he went on to talk about close-game situations.
Smart said it himself. His players are still getting used to his style. Instead of berating them or beating down their confidence and mentalities, Smart uses the tough loss as a teachable moment. And it's moments like these that will continue to contribute to this team's success moving forward.
Looking back on Barnes' tenure at Texas, there are many great moments, teams and players to reflect on. But in Shaka Smart's short time as the head coach of the Texas Longhorns men's basketball team, it's already apparent that his coaching style, approach to the game, and the way he relates to his players is much different, and even somewhat foreign, to what many of these current players were used to.
If this season has told us anything so far, it's that Coach Smart strives to connect with his players in positive ways. It's a characteristic that's led to success in his career before his time at Texas. And it's what has helped this year's Texas team find success throughout the season so far as they continue to work for a bid to play in the madness come March.