The No. 13 Texas Longhorns are back in Kansas City one year after the world shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
On March 12, 2020, the Longhorns were set to open the Big 12 Tournament against the Texas Tech Red Raiders hoping to win a game or two to sneak into the NCAA Tournament thanks to a late five-game winning streak.
Head coach Shaka Smart’s job was on the line after several embarrassing blowout losses, including a 97-59 debacle in Morgantown in late January that marked the worst Big 12 defeat in school history and seemingly marked the unofficial beginning of the end for Smart in his fifth season.
The day before, Brock Cunningham sprained his ankle in practice, further depleting a Longhorns roster that was already without Jericho Sims, Gerald Liddell, and Jase Febres, leaving Smart with seven scholarship players.
The same day that Cunningham suffered his injury, the NBA suspended the season after several players tested positive for the novel coronavirus, news that hit the Texas meeting room hard. “Like a lot of other things that occur in the NBA, that was really impacted to our guys,” Smart recalled on Monday.
Some players wondered if they were going to continue playing. Others wondered whether it was safe. But like every game day — at least until quarantine changed his hairstyle — Smart woke up early and cut his hair, then checked in with athletics director Chris Del Conte. The games were still on.
It wasn’t until the players got to T-Mobile Center and started to begin warmups that Smart heard the news from Del Conte that the tournament was canceled.
“At that point, we didn’t know what we know now about the severity of COVID, and just the long-lasting impact, but I had a feeling that it would be the last time that we would be addressing that team in the locker room in that season,” Smart said.
One player expressed his relief that the Longhorns weren’t playing, believing that it wasn’t safe. Another player was extremely upset, mad and disappointed Texas had an opportunity taken away.
No matter where players landed on that spectrum, there was nothing else to do other than return to the hotel room and get on a flight back to Austin. On the plane, someone handed Smart their phone with the news report that the NCAA Tournament was canceled, too.
When the Texas campus shut down, the players returned home. For injured players like Febres and Sims, that meant rehabilitation in quarantine. For forward Kamaka Hepa, it meant isolation at the top of the world with his family in Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow, the nothernmost community in the United States.
Forward Kai Jones used the time to get better. When the team returned to campus, the growth of Jones caught the attention of Matt Coleman, the senior point guard. “Coming in during the summer it was like, ‘He’s gotten a lot better, like he’s ready to play this year,” Coleman said this week.
Highly-rated freshman forward Greg Brown III made the short trip down to the Forty Acres after committing to Smart in late April. The improvement from Jones and the arrival of Brown gave the Longhorns even more length and athleticism to combat some of the team’s biggest difficulties during the 2019-20 season — poor defensive rebounding, a difficulty scoring easy baskets, and an inability to get to the free-throw line.
As the team entered preseason camp, Smart put an emphasis on playing faster offensively and worked with his team extensively on cutting off the ball. Led by the rebounding ability of the improved frontcourt and the playmaking of Coleman, Andrew Jones, and Courtney Ramey, the Longhorns played faster and more efficiently on offense, improving the team’s effective field-goal percentage, three-point shooting, free-throw rate, and offensive rebounding.
Texas accomplished one of its season goals early on, winning the Maui Invitational in Asheville when Coleman hit a step-back jumper to knock off North Carolina in the championship game. By early January, the Longhorns had also notched an historic blowout of Bill Self’s Jayhawks in Lawrence while Andrew Jones thrilled Texas fans with a last-second three to beat West Virginia in Morgantown.
And then, like Smart knew it would at some point during the pandemic season, adversity struck. With COVID-19 cases spreading rapidly through the community, the Longhorns were forced to play in an empty Erwin Center.
“We’re gonna go through more adversity and more challenges and the difference between the great teams and everyone else is the great teams are able to use that adversity and those challenges to come closer together and to get stronger, so now’s the time more than ever to do that,” Smart recalled telling his team in early January.
Smart wanted to make it clear that he doesn’t consider playing in an empty Erwin Center as an excuse, but he did say that there is a huge difference between having some fans and having no fans at all. Especially when the contrast is between no fans and the 4,000 fans allowed in the arena in Lubbock in recent weeks.
So perhaps that dynamic came into play when Texas lost its first disappointing game of the season, a 79-77 defeat by Texas Tech in mid-January before the real adversity hit. After that loss, the Longhorns beat the Wildcats with a short-handed team and played the Sooners at home with only eight available scholarship players and without Smart, who had tested positive for COVID-19.
“Watching that game was one of the worst basketball experiences of my life because I just felt helpless,” Smart said last week after beating Oklahoma. “And I knew our team was just less than whole, you know Courtney’s not there, Jericho is not there, Brock’s there but he’s in street clothes, I’m not there. And our guys fought and battled and came all the way back, still lost, so it’s heartbreaking.”
Texas lost 80-79 after the Horns were unable to get off a shot in the final second. Smart finally got out of isolation feeling like “a caged animal,” an experience that Smart described as upsetting.
The team was left trying to bounce back from going almost three weeks without practicing together as a full group. The rhythm and connectedness that defined the team’s play through the first 11 games was difficult to regain as Texas hit a three-game losing streak, falling at home to Baylor and then dropping a two-overtime game against Oklahoma State in Stillwater thanks to some elite shotmaking from freshman sensation Cade Cunningham.
The winter storms that left much of the state without power and running water in mid-February impacted Texas, too, resulting in two postponements and leaving the Longhorns forced to face the Mountaineers without much practice time that week, not to mention finishing the season with four road games. After jumping out to a 19-point lead early in the second half, Texas couldn’t hold on down the stretch against WVU.
Then a desperate Texas Tech team coming off of three straight losses roared back during another difficult second-half stretch for Texas, but the team was able to close the regular season with three consecutive road wins and six wins in the last eight games.
The Horns are now a likely No. 4 seed, a seeding the program has rarely surpassed, with significant postseason expectations after all seven losses came against top-40 teams in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric. The season’s worst loss, the only one against a Quadrant 2 opponent, was against Oklahoma in Austin. And that game dropped into the second quadrant thanks to the late four-game losing streak for the Sooners, including the victory by the Longhorns last week.
All the pieces are in place to make a deep postseason run that could help Smart reverse the narrative of his tenure coming off five disappointing seasons that failed to produce an NCAA Tournament win. The momentum is there, as long as Texas can maintain it.
But does Smart believe it’s real?
“If we capitalize on it, I think it is. When you do something that you set out to do like this week winning three games, can you take the positive aspects of that?” Smart asked on Sunday.
“Our guys, for instance, in these three games were really, really good in huddles communicating with each other and encouraging each other. They have an understanding, that’s beyond what any of us have, of what each other’s going through, so I think when they have that, that encouragement and helping each other with response, it’s huge. So, can we continue momentum? Yeah, if we learn that it really helps each other when we do that.”
With the experienced leadership possessed by Texas, Coleman plans to make the most of the opportunity.
“That’s why you come to college — it’s to play and win in March and for us knowing that we’re not going to get that taken away from us this year is even more exciting,” Coleman said.