When the 2019-20 basketball season started, conventional wisdom held that Texas Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart needed to build on the 2019 NIT victory with, at the least, Smart’s first NCAA tournament victory in his five seasons on the Forty Acres.
Instead of building on last season’s strong finish, Texas suffered blowout losses to Georgetown and Providence, then lost five of seven games once Big 12 play began, including the 97-59 debacle that left legendary Longhorns point guard TJ Ford publicly questioning the program’s direction. An understandable response after the school’s worst loss in Big 12 history and the worst loss in Smart’s rather ignominious tenure.
Texas won the next two games, then descended into another losing streak, dropping four straight games that culminated with another blowout loss, this time to a poor Iowa State team without its best player, Tyrese Haliburton.
At that point, Smart’s tenure appeared over as injuries mounted and the team showed few signs of life. Instead of folding, however, Smart’s team suddenly and inexplicably came together during a five-game winning streak that featured wins over two top-25 teams — West Virginia and Texas Tech.
The regular season ended with all that momentum crashing to a grinding halt in another blowout loss in which the Longhorns never really competed, this time at home to the Cowboys in front of the season’s best crowd.
So Smart and his team entered the Big 12 tournament likely needing at least one victory to stay on the right side of the bubble and keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive. Minutes before Texas was set to tip off against Texas Tech in Kansas City, however, both teams were removed from the court and sent home — the tournament was canceled due to concerns about the spread of coronavirus.
In short order, the postseason tournaments were canceled, too. Across the world, nearly every professional league stopped competing as the NCAA halted spring sports and spring football practices.
Moody’s Investors Service estimated on Tuesday that the NCAA’s revenue will decline by more than 40 percent for this fiscal year. With the NCAA considering an extra year of eligibility for spring sports impacted by the coronavirus cancelations, member institutions could face increased costs of $400,000 to $900,000 next year.
And that’s on top of the other financial impacts as a result of the coronavirus, like the loss of revenue from spring sports and the likely cancelation of spring football games.
There’s also increasing concern among college football coaches that there might not be a 2020 football season, according to former Texas head coach Mack Brown, who is now back at North Carolina. To be clear, Brown thinks the season will happen, but there’s no way of knowing right now.
Those are the issues currently on the mind of Texas athletics director Chris Del Conte, who has been busy holding teleconferences with other Big 12 member institutions discussing issues like eligibility and whether programs like the Longhorns will be able to hold any spring practices, which were set to begin on Tuesday.
As a result, Del Conte is more focused on big-picture issues in the athletic department.
“That question or that conversation has not been on the front burner of my mind,” Del Conte said on the “On Second Thought” podcast last week. “I’m sure it is on yours because that is your job. Mine is making sure the safety of our student-athletes is first and foremost.”
There are other considerations, too — with the price of oil dropping precipitously and the stock market tanking in recent days, the Texas booster network has surely taken some significant financial hits.
On both sides of the equation, then, the $10.5 million buyout for the final three guaranteed years of Smart’s deal now looks much more substantial.
A lesser consideration is the continued recruitment of the nation’s No. 9 prospect, Vandegrift forward Greg Brown III, a Longhorn legacy who may be the best basketball prospect in Austin’s history.
If Smart doesn’t return next season, Brown is extremely unlikely to choose Texas next month. If he does commit to Smart and the Longhorns, the Texas head coach will have arguably his best roster since arriving on the Forty Acres, affording Smart the chance to finally turn things around.
With a significant part of the fanbase turned against Smart, it’s questionable whether a successful season would change anyone’s minds, but right now the economics surrounding Del Conte’s decision are likely a much bigger factor.
And that could mean another year for Smart after an up-and-down season that ended in an unprecedented manner.