For Texas Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart, his coaching career will come full circle on Tuesday evening when he returns to Richmond, where he helped lead the VCU Rams to a Final Four berth in 2011.
Not only did that group help make Smart’s career and provide the boost that resulted in Smart coming to Austin in 2015, it was emblematic of Smart’s philosophy — using rangy athletes to implement his full-court press, termed Havoc, to disrupt opponents, create turnovers, and get out in transition for easy baskets.
Now in this third season with the Longhorns, Smart hasn’t fully installed that style of play, in part because he’s continuing to work on instilling the type of mentality that allows the press to work.
In the last game of the PK80 Tournament in Portland during Thanksgiving weekend, Smart received a reminder of what made those VCU teams so difficult to play against and so thrilling to watch.
Texas trailed during the second half against Gonzaga by as many as 21 points, but forced the Bulldogs to lose composure with a furious rally fueled by the Diamond zone press Smart often favors. The ‘Horns eventually tied the game in regulation on an Andrew Jones three pointer before falling in overtime.
After the game, Zags head coach Mark Few took Smart aside and reminded him that his teams are at their best when running — Few thought Smart’s guards hadn’t been pushing the ball in transition enough.
The success of the press late in the game against Gonzaga also caused some writers covering the team to wonder why Smart hasn’t used the press more often during his tenure at Texas.
Smart lit up when asked about it.
“I love playing that way, man. You know that,” Smart said. “We have depth to play that way. We have a good amount of athleticism, but it requires an extreme commitment, I mean extreme, on the level of guys to get outside of their normal comfort zone. And it also, to be honest, it requires spending more energy on defense than maybe you would otherwise.”
Late in the game against Gonzaga, the deficit provided the motivation for Texas. On the day following Smart’s comments, Texas didn’t have that motivation against Florida A&M, so even though the press had some success early, the effort level and commitment overall wasn’t there.
As a result, Smart lit into his team after the game. “I jumped their ass in the locker room,” the hoarse head coach said after the uninspiring victory. “I didn’t think we showed the level of competitive maturity that we need to win.”
Smart understands that even though Texas has the personnel, pressing consistently and doing it well is as much about the mental attributes as the physical attributes. The process of building the necessary culture of mentality and aggressiveness takes some time and happens incrementally.
“Maybe at the end of it, you have a situation where you’re not really having to wonder or even think about a guy’s motivation to play a certain way,” Smart said. “But we’re not at that point yet, and part of that is because these guys haven’t played a lot together yet.”
As Smart builds greater cohesiveness and program depth with the 2018 signing class that includes a host of lengthy players who should remain in college multiple years and fit the system well, then Texas will more closely resemble the VCU teams that enthralled college basketball fans and took the sport by storm in 2011.
On Tuesday, the Longhorns won’t look like that Rams team, but that doesn’t mean that Smart left that philosophy in Richmond. He’s just continuing the multi-year process of rebuilding the Texas program in his vision.
For the VCU fans who will welcome Smart back to the Siegel Center, they remember the execution of that vision as a high point for Rams basketball — that’s the power of Smart’s pressing style when the culture of aggressiveness combines with the necessary physical attributes.