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Emotional Shaka Smart returns as Texas players regain availability

After dealing with “significant symptoms” from COVID-19, Smart held one of the most remarkable press conferences of his tenure on Monday.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Tech at Texas American-Statesman-USA TODAY NETWORK

On Sunday, Texas Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart was back on the practice floor with his team following a battle with COVID-19. All of his players were there, too — the first time in 19 days the entire team was able to practice together after a coronavirus outbreak.

Along with Smart, all 11 scholarship players are expected to be available for Tuesday’s monumental home game against No. 2 Baylor, as long as Monday’s tests are negative.

Smart admitted that after experiencing “significant symptoms” following his positive test, he might have overdone it a little bit in his Sunday return, a sign of the toll that the novel coronavirus took on his health.

During his first Monday press conference in three weeks, Smart sounded like a different person. Over 25 minutes or so, his emotions ranged from frustration to concern to gratitude, and those were just the emotions that Smart could not contain amidst some deeply-held opinions that he clearly wanted to keep private.

When asked about the experience of watching his team play Oklahoma last week from isolation, Smart was uncharacteristically curt.

“It wasn’t very enjoyable,” he said, declining to talk about his personal experience of the rivalry game in isolation. Battling through COVID-19 was unquestionably a life-altering experience for Smart, who has been extraordinarily careful in taking the pandemic as seriously as any coach in the country. Despite those precautions, Smart tested positive and had to battle through the complications of COVID-19.

“This was not a walk in the park for me,” Smart said. “Not saying it has been for anyone else. When you go through that kind of stuff, it certainly swirls some things around your mind. So that’s a much longer conversation than we have time for now. I’ll be happy to talk to you about it sometime, maybe after the season.

“But there’s a lot up there for me and I think just to sum it up — maybe a prioritization of what matters most, both as it relates to our team and also as it relates to my family, loved ones. The one thing when you have this thing is, and I’m sure other people maybe went through this is, it certainly gives you a little bit of a second sight to see some things a little more clearly.”

Smart went on to decline to talk much about his experience during the Oklahoma game before expressing his opinions about his team playing without its head coach and with only eight available scholarship players.

“You certainly could have made the argument that it was a tough position for our guys to be in,” Smart said of the contest against the Sooners. Because of Big 12 guidelines, only six healthy scholarship players are necessary for a game to happen as scheduled.

The rivalry game capped a stretch of adversity that included Smart holding a workout with only two available players.

In all, Texas dealt with absences in January from junior guard Courtney Ramey, redshirt sophomore guard Brock Cunningham, sophomore forward Kai Jones, freshman forward Greg Brown III, and senior forward Jericho Sims.

Three of the nine games scheduled for the month were cancelled or postponed, including three of the last four. For the season, the Longhorns have missed five games total, a quarter of the scheduled games so far.

Smart and his team entered the season with a clear perspective on what it would look like playing through a pandemic, but Smart’s diagnosis and all the recent issues left the Texas head coach even more conflicted about a campaign derailed by the virus. The uncertainty of long-term health implications for Smart and his players made the circumstances more difficult, even as Smart recognizes that his players want to play, and in some cases may even need to play for their mental health.

“I think it is a little frustrating to be honest that there is a wide variety of opinions, even amongst the doctors. And again, one thing that I’ve learned going through this myself is that because COVID is relatively new, it’s not like we have years and years of experience dealing with this from a medical standpoint,” Smart said.

“So if they say it’s safe to play the games, then we’re going to give our guys the opportunity to do that. Now, I think if you talk to majority of our guys, they want to play, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been moments where for some of them, they’ve been like, you know, ‘Wow, this is really really strange,’ and some thinking through, ‘What should we be doing?’”

It’s that final question that seemed to loom largest in Smart’s mind on Monday.

What should we be doing?

In the midst of all of Smart’s complicated emotions and that heavy and more ever present question, he also expressed gratitude for the ability to be back with an experienced team that he’d been through a lot with already.

“It’s easy to take something for granted if you get to do it every day,” Smart said. “But if you go 19 days without having a full group together, and then you get to be back — particularly for me it just happened to be my first day out of isolation — yeah, it’s a very emotional and moving thing, even just to be out there trying to get better at guarding a ball screen or transition defense or whatever it may be. So yeah, extremely grateful for being out there with those guys and the chance to work towards moving forward. And like I said, we’re going to do everything we can to go after this game and I’m so excited for our guys that the arena won’t be completely empty.”

Texas has played games in an empty arena for weeks as cases spiked in the Austin area, something that Smart said had an impact on the Horns. But now their families will be able to attend once again, along with a small number of fans to support the team in the biggest home game of the season against Baylor.

Even beyond the regular season, there are questions about the feasibility or reasonability of holding the conference’s postseason tournament. Asked about that possibility, Smart seemed frustrated with the levels of priorities across college basketball — the NCAA wanting to play the tournament, the Big 12 wanting to play its own, and individual programs with their own desires.

“I always talk about out, there needs to be extreme consideration just given to kind of the total effect of everything on the players, student-athletes, where their minds are and how they’re doing with everything.”

For a team dealing with some extreme adversity with positive cases, quarantine, isolation, and other cancellations or postponements of games that were out of this Texas team’s control, the emotions are clearly swirling for the head coach as he returns.

Ultimately, perhaps it’s the gratitude of the coach and his players for being out on the court that provides the best argument for slogging forward through it all.