One brings the competitive spirit. The other approaches the game like a coach.
With the offseason looming before the 2019-20 season begins, Texas Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart wants guards Courtney Ramey and Matt Coleman to become the focal points for a team looking to build on an NIT title run as Smart faces the most critical season of his coaching career.
“We’re going to go as those guys go, now and as long as they’re here,” Smart said after Texas beat Colorado in the NIT’s third round.
Hanging unspoken in the air of the Erwin Center media room in late March was an unmistakable reality — Smart’s tenure at Texas, now featuring four complete seasons, may also go as far as Coleman and Ramey can take it. The pressure is on with a significant portion of the fanbase unconvinced that Smart can win in Austin.
One of the most consistent themes for Smart is the extent to which guard play drives college basketball and the Big 12 specifically. To win in the conference and gain the type of seeding in the NCAA Tournament conducive to advancing, the Longhorns guards need to outplay opposing guards much more often than they have in his last three years.
“Those two together, if they can continue to come close, if they can impact their teammates in a positive way, as we all know, you win big with guards in the Big 12 and in college basketball and usually it’s with older guards,” Smart said.
Consider the example of Kansas two years ago, a team led by senior Big 12 Player of the Year Frank Mason and junior Devonte’ Graham. Though the conference was by far the nation’s best in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency, the Jayhawks sliced through it on the way to a 16-2 conference record and 28-3 record overall, led by the complementary pieces of Mason and Graham. One the pure point guard and the other the scorer.
This year, graduate transfer Matt Mooney has helped lead Texas Tech to the national championship game, while senior Barry Brown led Kansas State to a share of the Big 12 title, aided by fellow senior Kamau Stokes.
Kansas fell back in the pack without an experienced guard to lead the team.
For Smart at Texas, his only two senior guards in the last three years were Kendal Yancy three years ago and Kerwin Roach II this season — why Smart says that retention is as important as recruiting.
Now that Coleman will be a junior and Ramey will be a sophomore, there will be more experience at the two lead guard spots for Texas. In fact, Smart hasn’t had a junior point guard since his first season, when Isaiah Taylor held that role.
Smart describes Coleman and Ramey as polar opposites, which he considers favorable in helping each player bring out the best in the other.
Coleman, who Smart has known and recruited since middle school, is the extension of his head coach in practice and on the floor. Ideally.
“Matt Coleman thinks the most like a coach, by far, on our team,” Smart said in New York. “He is the least bothered by the umpteen things that are going to come up during a basketball game or a basketball practice. He probably focuses on the guys around him the most. He has a maturity about him.”
Unfortunately, that maturity hasn’t always translated into the style of leadership that Smart demands from his point guard and it certainly hasn’t translated into the type of success that Coleman likely envisioned when he came to Austin.
At issue is Coleman’s personality — sure, he thinks like a coach, but he entered his sophomore season often leading like a player who was concerned with being popular and wasn’t comfortable delivering the difficult messages that ultimately define strong leadership.
“They always tell me to say it with more salt than sugar,” Coleman said last fall. “I feel respected by everybody, but I always wanted to be liked by everybody.
“When they say Matt, he’s a cool dude. But now I know we’ve been through some things this spring, this summer, this fall. The guys respect me, but they want that from me. They want to get the best out of themselves. So say no more.”
The extent to which Coleman was able to accomplish that goal is up for debate — most of his leadership happens behind the scenes or in ways that aren’t always obvious on the court.
What is apparent is that he played fewer minutes as a sophomore than he did as a freshman. His field-goal percentage went down, as did his points per game and assists per game. At times, he dealt with foul trouble and subsequently appeared disengaged, losing the joy that defines his play at its best.
“With the joy, that was my thing with him even before he came here,” Smart said after the Baylor game in Austin this year. “He’s at his best when he’s having fun and playing with joy.”
Playing with joy, however, requires being present, a form of transcendence that requires the proper sacrifices to the basketball gods — a clear mind with the bipartite focus of winning and playing for his teammates.
And for the first time in Coleman’s career, he hasn’t had the success of his peers, prompting Smart to strongly suggest that his mind was often clouded this season.
“He was a really, really good player as a really young kid — eighth, ninth grade, he was ahead of his time,” Smart said on Selection Sunday. “He was always advanced and playing against older guys. He grew up as an AAU basketball player with Mo Bamba and Trae Young and some of these guys who are in the NBA. That can play on a guy’s mind, ‘I played well against these guys. I beat Trae Young twice last year, but he’s on that level doing that and I’m here struggling in the Big 12 sometimes.’”
The key for Coleman during this critical offseason, in Smart’s estimation, is to take what the Texas head coach believes can be a long-term positive for him by translating his struggles into a better understanding of himself as a player.
“Sometimes a guy needs that to come to a full realization of who he is instead of trying to be something else,” Smart said.
Coleman isn’t a scorer like Young. He’s not seven feet tall with a 7’10 wingspan like Bamba, his former teammate. He is extraordinarily fast with the basketball. He’s an improved leaper since arriving at Texas. He thinks like a coach and he’s a pleaser. He’s converting at the free-throw line at a rate of 78.5 percent when he draws fouls. He’s an improving three-point shooter who is at his best in big moments. He can be an impactful defender.
“He’s a better player than he’s played of late and he’s obviously had some terrific games for us this year — most of the big games we’ve won, he’s played really, really well,” Smart said before the NIT.
Against Lipscomb, Coleman scored 11 points and dished out seven assists. In the second half, when the Bisons cut the lead to seven points, Coleman hit a big three-pointer, then assisted on another a little more than a minute later. As Lipscomb star Garrison Mathews kept drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line, Coleman found sophomore guard Jase Febres in transition for a big three that pushed the lead to 13, then another to maintain the same margin.
And he wasn’t finished, either — after Mathews finished a three-point play, Coleman hit his second three-pointer. Lipscomb simply couldn’t cut into the Texas lead during that stretch, largely because Coleman’s floor game was better than anything the Bisons could muster.
Those sequences demonstrated Coleman’s aptitude for becoming a better shooter than his stats show in important moments and his ability to find the right teammate with the right pass at the right time.
In that regard, Coleman finished his sophomore season with a tournament title at the Mecca of basketball by fulfilling the promise he showed as a recruit and teasing what he could become next season.
The NIT run overall was just as valuable for Ramey, who emerged as the emotional center of the team, the core of its toughness.
“Courtney has the best competitive spirit of anyone on our team,” Smart said. “He’s not afraid. He’s never afraid. He doesn’t back down. He values winning to a very, very high extent.”
The toughness hasn’t necessarily come naturally — it’s been forged by his father, a demanding longtime AAU basketball coach, and the hardscrabble reality of trying to get out of St. Louis.
Against South Dakota State in the NIT’s first round, the Jackrabbits took a three-point lead in the second half after overcoming a 19-0 start by the Longhorns. Entering a timeout, Ramey looked around at his teammates and saw a lack of energy.
“Let’s f****** go!”
The game hung in the balance out of that timeout, with the potential to slip away like so many other games this season. Instead, Ramey backed up his vocal demand by draining a three-pointer to tie the game when Dylan Osetkowski delivered a perfect pocket pass from the post.
Never afraid, right?
Texas finished the game on a 15-6 run and only played one other close game on the way to its NIT championship. In fact, to the extent that Ramey’s response was critical to stopping South Dakota State’s attempted comeback, no single shot was more important in defining the team’s newfound poise over the final five games.
Against Xavier in the following round — the only other close game — Ramey did it all. He had three assists and only one turnover. He crashed the defensive glass with a career-high eight rebounds. He made three three-pointers and scored 17 total points. He didn’t let a team that Roach respectfully called a bunch of bullies push him around, picking up a double-technical foul in the first half.
After Ramey’s technical foul, Texas finished the half with a 10-4 run marred only by the clock operator preserving a final possession for Xavier that resulted in a fortunate basket by the Musketeers.
“I hate losing, so you’re going to get that fire out of me,” Ramey said after the game. “Then my teammates see that and they just jump aboard. And then they look to me to do that because that’s one of the roles that coach has given to me, just to bring spirit to the team and make sure that everybody is up and ready to play.”
As the tournament progressed, Ramey made other contributions. Most significantly, he emerged as the team’s lockdown defender, providing effort and effectiveness in Madison Square Garden.
Ramey only scored three points in the final two games, but had eight assists against TCU and stymied opposing point guard Alex Robinson, one of the best playmakers in the country. Forced to defend ball screen after ball screen, Ramey fought over each and every one with tenacity to limit Robinson to a single assist in his final college game. The 12 points that Robinson scored were largely meaningless because Ramey forced him into an individual effort.
And Ramey wasn’t done yet, either. In the title game against Lipscomb, Ramey was given a much different task — chasing Atlantic Sun Player of the Year Garrison Mathews off of screens with no help responsibilities. The stakes were high, as Mathews had scored 44 points against North Carolina State to win a one-point game in Raleigh and then dropped 34 points against Wichita State in the semifinals.
Mathews only hit 2-of-10 shots from the field, including a first-half performance with a paltry three points from one trip to the free-throw line. By the time he’d missed his eighth straight attempt by failing to draw iron on a three-point attempt in the second half, he was left to run back on defense talking to himself. As the final seconds ticked away, Mathews limped to the bench having failed to give his team a chance to win the game because Ramey slammed the door on his college career with a relentless effort.
By percentage and ability to hit off the bounce, Ramey is the team’s most efficient three-point shooter at 38.6 percent as a freshman. He can run the pick and roll and finish in the lane or make the right pass. He’s an excellent help defender and strong rebounder when necessary. His man-to-man defense is showing signs of becoming elite. Just ask Robinson and Mathews.
Despite the significant differences in personality between Coleman and Ramey, the overarching tasks for both are similar.
“They’ll be a year older next year and, as we’ve learned, a year older doesn’t guarantee that you’re just going to take this monumental jump as a player — you’ve got to put the work in, and not just physically, you’ve got to put the work in watching tape, learning the game more, understanding the intricacies of how to make the guys around you better,” Smart said.
After clashing during practices this season, Smart’s demands of Ramey are clear. Six simple words, actually.
Less bothered. More receptive. Better details.
In other words, Ramey needs to be more poised in practice and in games, he needs to be more coachable, and he needs to study the game to gain a deeper situational awareness and ability to execute scouting reports.
“If he can own those six words, he can be as good as he wants to be and he can be a heckuva guard compared to anybody, but he does need to make strides in those areas,” Smart said.
Still, Ramey values winning as much as anyone on the team and Smart believes he can help Coleman and the rest of the players in that regard as he learns to lead vocally instead of just by example. Unquestionably more salt than sugar, Ramey can also help Coleman become a leader with an edge.
Meanwhile, Coleman can help Ramey with those six words that Smart demands of the St. Louis product by teaching him to think more like a coach and helping him understand why the actual head coach pushes him so hard.
“I just want those guys to grab hold of the game and manage the game,” Smart said. “Every little part of it. They’re not all the way there yet, but they’ve made a lot of progress and it works best when you do it together, not taking turns.”