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How Texas finally fulfilled its potential during NIT title run

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The Horns played with a clear-minded purpose during the NIT. Now the challenge is to translate that lesson through the offseason and into next year.

NCAA Basketball: NIT Final Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Aggressive. Loose. Confident.

Faced with the disappointment of missing the NCAA Tournament due to a 1-5 finish, Texas Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart created a motto for the NIT based on playing with the purpose and clear-mindedness necessary to win the whole thing as the staff challenged the pride of its players.

Five games later, the Longhorns did exactly that in New York, cutting down the net at Madison Square Garden thanks to a dominant victory over the Bisons of Lipscomb, the third straight dominant victory in the tournament.

If a truism of the basketball gods is that selfishness is rewarded with failure, the sacrifices necessary to put teammates and winning ahead of the individual are rewarded with success.

“I think the biggest key to our guys’ ability to respond when the other team has made a run or something hasn’t gone our way, is just a focus on each other instead of guys focused on themselves,” Smart said after beating Lipscomb.

Texas learned that lesson the hard way during a regular season that finished at 16-15 before another disappointing loss in the conference tournament to Kansas in Kansas City. Losses to Radford and Providence at home and Oklahoma State and Georgia on the road showcased the worst of Smart’s fourth team.

“There’s been times where we haven’t been able to have everyone out there with a clear-minded purpose of trying to do one thing,” Smart said. “Again, that’s human nature, but I thought that was the main difference in these five games.”

Smart referenced a classic quote from longtime San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich to illustrate his point — “get over yourself.”

“We’re looking for people — and I’ve said it many times — [who] have gotten over themselves, and you can tell that pretty quickly,” Popovich said three years ago. “You can talk to somebody for four or five minutes, and you can tell if it’s about them, or if they understand that they’re just a piece of the puzzle.”

The lesson that freshman guard Courtney Ramey learned from the NIT championship echoed the directive passed down from Popovich to Smart to the Longhorns team.

“We can be a great team when we lock in and play for the next man,” Ramey said. “I played for Snoop, Snoop played for Matt, and Matt played for DO, so when we play for each other, give energy to each other, it’s going to be hard to beat us.”

Asked about that philosophy, Smart laughed. He’s been asking players to do that for his whole career.

“It’s very, very simple to me, but elusive,” he said. “When a team plays with two things in mind, only — the guy next to you and winning, magical things happen and you’re able to weather storms and you’re able to go through stretches where you don’t make shots, you’re able to weather stretches where the refs, you know, it feels like they’re making every call the other way.”

So the challenge of finding ways to effectively convey that message of focusing only on teammates and winning throughout the long college basketball season is one of the most significant hurdles that coaches face. For young players, there are a host of concerns that can keep them from focusing outside themselves, according to Smart.

“How am I playing? How much am I playing? Who’s watching? Am I going to the NBA? Is coach not playing me as much as I want? Is my role what it needs to be? What’s going to happen next year? How does my family feel? How do scouts feel? I’m tired. It goes on and on and on.”

Maturity helps, Smart admitted. Texas only had two seniors this season, Kerwin Roach II and Dylan Osetkowski, and those players sometimes struggled to play like seniors. Roach certainly wasn’t acting like a senior when he was suspended for the second time this season and the third time in his career. He was benched for another game when he was late to a team meeting.

Overall, the Longhorns ranked No. 281 out of 353 Division I teams in experience this season. In the two previous seasons, Texas sat in the 330s or worse, fielding some of the most inexperienced teams in the country. Losing early entrants into the NBA Draft hurt, as did attrition, including the dismissal of Tevin Mack and transfers of Jacob Young and Jacob Banks last offseason. Eric Davis Jr. left the team at the same time following his suspension due to his involvement in the FBI’s probe into college basketball. Andrew Jones lost most of the last two seasons due to his diagnosis of and treatment for leukemia.

So, ever since Smart fielded a top-100 team in experience during his first season, thanks to five seniors, he’s been fighting an uphill battle against bad luck and departures. Roach and Kendal Yancy are the only two senior guards he’s coached since that first team. Yancy barely contributed in his final season.

“When you have youth in college basketball, once the season starts, you’re not adding any free agents. If you start off young, you’re going to be young for the rest of the year,” Smart said. “We’ve really been trying to get older and over time, that requires retention. Everyone talks about recruiting and recruiting is huge, but retention is a very, very important ability to get guys back for their sophomore year, their junior year, their senior year. Hopefully, next year we’ll be a little bit older.”

Remarkably enough, even though the Horns will be older, there will be only one senior on next season’s team — Mount St. Mary’s transfer Elijah Mitrou-Long, who didn’t even play in the NIT title game against Lipscomb. The bigger story, however, will be having a larger junior class, with Matt Coleman, Jase Febres, Jericho Sims, and Royce Hamm all possessing the potential to make significant leaps in their third seasons.

Experience isn’t enough by itself, though. After showing much better pride and poise during the NIT run featuring that clear-minded purpose, the Longhorns have to effectively transfer those lessons into and through the next seven months. Whether or not that happens will go a long way towards defining whether next season is a success or failure.

“I think, for our guys, hopefully this tournament and this season overall can be something our young guys can really grab onto to understand that the margin for error, the difference between winning and losing, is not really that big,” Smart said.

“That’s something that we have to understand, again, regardless of who the opponent is and it’s something that we hit these guys hard with and we have to find different angles. The bottom line is that what helps the most is when you do have, whoever the leaders are on your team, they say, ‘I don’t care that we’re playing whoever it is, we’re going to be just as good as we were and there’s no exception to that.’ That’s something that Matt and Courtney and our coaching staff and whoever else is leading our team needs to be connected on.”

The extent to which those two players can emerge as more effective leaders is key to becoming a player-led team, thereby taking some pressure off of Smart to continually find new ways to convey important messages to his team in an effort to get consistent effort and clear-mindedness.

Right now, Smart is going through his yearly mini depression that comes with the end of the season as he and his staff start their evaluations of it, going through every game and assessing what went well, what didn’t go well, and how to improve moving forward.

Last Thursday, in an office off of the home locker room at Madison Square Garden, Smart wasn’t ready to comment on how those evaluations might go, but he did say that he’s interested in having exit conversations with his players to ask them what they took out of the NIT title run.

“The reality is, this offseason we really need to create huge growth in terms of our understanding of who we need to be, individually and as a program,” Smart said. “Hopefully we can use these five games to help with that.”