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On Shaka Smart and the question of Havoc at Texas

Without playing his signature style, does the Longhorns head coach have an identity? Can Smart win without it?

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Kansas Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The question came and Shaka Smart lit up.

In late November, the Texas Longhorns head coach was asked about playing his signature style of basketball that helped the VCU Rams reach the Final Four in 2011 — the fullcourt pressure, transition-oriented attack known as “Havoc.”

“I love playing that way, man, you know that.”

Shaka Smart when asked about playing the style formerly known as Havoc

And yet, “Havoc” never came to Texas — VCU branded it as an official trademark in 2012 and shortly after Smart took the job in Austin, his new school abandoned an application to register “Horns Havoc” and “Havoc House.”

More than just in branding terms, however, the style of play that helped define Smart at VCU, the only head coaching stop in his career, hasn’t really showed up on the court during his three years in Austin.

The first team that Smart inherited at Texas centered in large part around senior center Cam Ridley, who was having the best season of his career before a fractured foot in the middle of December essentially ended his season.

The ‘Horns pressed at times, but never came close to matching the consistent intensity of the Rams, which forced the nation’s highest turnover rate for the final three seasons of Smart’s tenure in Richmond.

After losing five seniors from that team, along with point guard Isaiah Taylor, the facilitator of the transition opportunities created by a team that didn’t play at an especially fast past left Smart with an inexperienced group.

Without a pure point guard and the presence of five-star recruit Jarrett Allen on the interior, fullcourt pressure wasn’t a feature of that team, either. The team’s adjusted tempo wasn’t of any note as the Longhorns won only 11 games, but the Rams didn’t always play at a fast tempo under Smart, either.

Landing Matt Coleman added the critical point guard the program desperately needed, but with the roster dominated by freshmen and sophomores this season, Texas only used fullcourt pressure sporadically and played at an even slower pace.

At times, Smart deployed fullcourt pressure, which helped fuel a furious comeback that ultimately fell short in overtime against Gonzaga at the PK80 tournament in Oregon.

“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 getting outside their normal comfort zone and it also, to be honest, requires you to spend more energy on defense than maybe you would otherwise.”

Smart went on to relate a story about watching current NBA player Iman Shumpert help his team turn create more than 30 turnovers in a high school game. When Smart queried the coach about how his team was so good in that area, he was told that it was “because they wanted to be.”

In the Gonzaga game, Texas didn’t have a choice — it had to create turnovers quickly to even have a chance at a comeback. It worked.

“The simple answer is that I would love to do that more,” Smart said. “I think it’s a way to play more guys. It’s a way to, when you have certain lineups in the game, to extend the floor and be aggressive.”

So beyond pure desperation, Smart’s saying that it takes depth, athleticism, the right players, and the mental commitment to use that style of play.

Experience certainly helps — the Final Four team featured four seniors and a junior among its top six contributors. Over the last two seasons, Smart has only had two scholarship seniors total and neither was a high-level performer.

And this season, the depth that Smart mentioned diminished quickly as the season went on. Andrew Jones was diagnosed with leukemia, Kerwin Roach missed several games with his fractured hand, Eric Davis Jr. missed some time with an injury and then was withheld from competition due to allegations he accepted money from an agent’s representative. During the season’s final stretch, Mo Bamba also missed several games.

The combination of inexperience and decreased depth likely played a role in Smart opting not to pressure much as the season went along — there’s always a risk-reward calculation of balancing the opportunity to create turnovers with the potential of giving up easy baskets when opponents break that press.

Dylan Osetkowski, for instance played 40 or more minutes in eight games this season. With all the overtime games, overall close contests, and the pressure on the team to secure victories as Big 12 play wound down, he likely didn’t have the physical energy to engage in much Havoc.

In the last six games, Roach played 37 or more minutes in every game.

Based on Smart’s comments and the realities of how the last several seasons have played out, it doesn’t seem that the Texas head coach has abandoned the identity that helped him earn his current job in the first place — it just hasn’t made sense for him to employ it yet.

The compounding problem is that Smart didn’t have recruiting access to the type of players who would leave school early in Richmond. Now he does and needs those players to compete in the nation’s toughest basketball conference. And that makes it more difficult to develop the continuity, experience, and overall mindset that made Havoc possible at VCU.

Looking ahead, will Smart use Havoc more next season? That may rely on several factors out of his control. Will Jones be healthy enough to play? Will Davis stick around with the possibility of a further suspension looming? Will Roach return? Can the incoming freshmen, all of whom have the length to fit the Havoc system, be able to contribute?

If not, is Smart a good enough coach to win by playing good defense in the half court and scoring consistently on offense without the benefit of creating turnovers at a high rate? Or was his success dependent on that system and competing against mid-major talent that struggled against the onslaught of VCU length and athleticism?

Smart’s first team ranked in the top 50 in adjusted offensive efficiency, even though it didn’t too much particularly well except limit turnovers, so that’s a positive. And Texas has improved in defensive efficiency in each of the three years he’s been in Austin, even without Havoc. Or much experience.

As the Longhorns program moves forward, however, the answers to those questions posed previously could largely define whether Smart can produce the success necessary to keep his job.

Smart is on record that he still loves Havoc and wants to employ it, he just hasn’t had the pieces and opportunity to do so yet. And the clock is ticking with a frustrated fanbase.