The team’s most experienced player quickly admitted his mistake.
In the aftermath of yet another close loss for the Texas Longhorns against the Kansas Jayhawks on Big Monday in Lawrence, 80-78, the 31st game decided by three points or less under head coach Shaka Smart, senior guard Kerwin Roach II was honest about his failure to execute Smart’s final play at Phog Allen Fieldhouse.
With sophomore guard Jase Febres having hit three straight attempts from beyond the arc to catapult Texas back into position to win the game, Smart called for Febres to set a slip screen for sophomore point guard Matt Coleman.
If Febres popped open, Coleman was supposed to find him. If not, the speedy guard was told to beat his opponent off the bounce to find another shooter like Roach or attempt to tie the game himself.
Instead, Roach took his defender towards the ball, congesting and disrupting the play as Febres was forced to take a long, awkward attempt. He was freelancing out of concern for a Kansas trap.
For critics of Smart, the play was everything wrong with Longhorns basketball over more than three years at the helm. For Roach, it was another poor decision that ultimately showed his ability to be vulnerable and accountable to his teammates through his admission of fault.
And make no mistake — the Texas head coach has a variety of tactics designed to mitigate those type of late-game mistakes. On Friday, he said that he tries to repeat himself in the huddle to reduce confusion. He tries to keep plays simple to reduce the number of possible mistakes. He asks his players to huddle again on the court coming out of the timeout to reduce miscommunication.
“If you had that play back, it’d be easy to say, well, just get everyone out of the way and drive and try to attack, but at the same time, you know, if you execute the play the right way, I think we’d have gotten an open three,” Smart said.
Of course, for a team that struggles to consistently make those open threes, simply executing might not have been enough. And, after more than three years, when is it reasonable to expect that Smart’s team will stop having these type of problems?
The bottom line is that Smart’s inability to win close games could eventually cost him his job — the Longhorns rarely get blown out, but often fail to do enough to win consistently, whether it’s at home against programs like VCU or Radford, on the road against a vulnerable team like Oklahoma State, or on the road against a national power like Kansas.
In the NCAA Tournament, Texas lost to Northern Iowa on a freak buzzer-beater from halfcourt in 2016 before falling in overtime to Nevada by four points last season.
This season, Texas has won three games by four points or less while losing six games by six points or fewer. As close as the Horns may be, that’s little consolation for an impatient fan base, a coach who knows that’s not good enough, and a team that ranks No. 259 nationally in experience while possessing plenty of talent.
Older players like Roach don’t have any particular excuses. Freshmen like breakout forward Jaxson Hayes and promising guard Courtney Ramey are still learning how to succeed at the college level. Febres still loses confidence at times, even though he may be overcoming that obstacle after his 23-point performance against Kansas State (7-of-9 shooting from three) and hitting those late shots on the road against Kansas.
Overall, Smart is focusing on doing the little things more often throughout the game in order to win in the nation’s toughest basketball conference.
“I’ve really been emphasizing to the guys the theme of one more,” Smart said. “Whether it’s one more deflection, one more extra pass, one more possession where we force the other team into something that’s low percentage for them. Just one more. It’s amazing how much of a difference that makes when you give one more.”
The solutions are as simple as playing more often in correct defensive stances. Communicating pick-and-roll coverages effectively. Hitting teammates in the shooting pocket when open, instead of making them reach for passes. Shooting the ball with confidence and without avoidance. Smart watching film with Hayes to point out when his talented freshman goes for impossible shot blocks and gets himself out of position or unnecessarily picks up fouls by reaching with his 7’4 wingspan.
“You have to grab hold of it as a group, and we talked about the after Kansas, you need everybody,” Smart said. “If there’s one guy that’s just off the page or a couple guys that are in their feelings for whatever reason, that’s not going to be good enough against the better teams in this league particularly on the road and even at home. So, we haven’t quite been there, but that’s what it’s going to take.”
Senior forward Dylan Osetkowski added his own list on Friday.
“Being low, getting in your stance,” he said. “Have high hands on a close out, not letting someone get an open three. It’s a small area of growth we can take to really make that next jump to becoming one of the better defensive teams in the conference and in the country.”
There’s no question that Texas can beat anyone in the country. There’s no question that the Longhorns can lose to just about anyone in the country.
Five games into the 18-game conference schedule, it’s time for the Longhorns to define themselves as a team.
“We definitely think we’re one of the best teams in the country. It’s just about showing it,” Febres said. “You can talk all you want, but if you’re not producing, then it’s just talk.”
With a record currently sitting at 10-7 and plenty more difficult games ahead, Texas doesn’t have much margin for error remaining if the Horns want to make the NCAA Tournament and provide a little bit of pressure relief for their increasingly embattled head coach.