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Matt Coleman rewarding Shaka Smart for his confidence

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Smart landed Coleman four years ago by promising to give him the keys to the Longhorns program. Now Coleman is fulfilling the vision Smart has had for his point guard since he was an eighth grader.

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Conference Tournament-Oklahoma State vs Texas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

In January of 2017, Shaka Smart had a problem — he desperately needed a point guard.

Smart’s Texas Longhorns team suffered the unexpected loss of Isaiah Taylor to the NBA Draft after his first season, leaving the Horns reliant on young players like Kerwin Roach II and Andrew Jones to handle the basketball.

It wasn’t working, as Texas stumbled through the 2016-17 season, suffering losses to UT-Arlington and Kent State and dropping four of the first five games in conference play before finishing the season with an 11-22 record.

The team clearly lacked leadership, too, as Smart tried to instill his culture in his second year at Texas — even before the season started, Roach and Tevin Mack were suspended for multiple games. Mack was indefinitely suspended in the middle of January.

But Smart had a plan, one he’d already been working to execute for four years as he recruited Matt Coleman, a lightning-quick point guard from Norfolk, Va. with a big personality and a national offer list. The relationship began when Coleman was in the eighth grade and Smart was the head coach at VCU and continued when Smart left Virginia for the Forty Acres.

Coleman took official visits to Duke, Kansas, and Stanford, but visited Texas last as Smart pitched Coleman on receiving the keys to the Longhorns program and having the basketball in his hands at the end of games.

On the morning of January 16, 2017, Coleman announced his decision on ESPNU, spurning Duke by donning a burnt orange hat. “Longhorn nation, the wait is over,” Coleman said.

“At the end of the day, he had to decide between us and Duke,” Smart said after the win against Oklahoma State. “When you’re coming out of high school and a program like that wants you and a coach like that, it takes a special type of guy to say, ‘No, I’m going to do something different.’”

On Saturday, a piece of Smart’s ultimate vision for Coleman came to fruition as the senior point guard led Texas to the school’s first Big 12 Tournament title by scoring 30 points on 10-of-14 shooting, including 4-of-5 shooting from three and 6-of-6 shooting from the free-throw line. Coleman was named the Big 12 Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

“He believed in us and our program,” Smart said. “I’m just so happy that he’s being able to live out what we talked about during the recruiting process and what we talked about over these last three years.”

In between confetti and tears of joy, it was Coleman who had a message for Smart after Texas won its first Big 12 Tournament title.

“Coach, this is what we’ve been saying since day one, you know, it took four years to make it happen, to take a step in the right direction, but you did this — you built the culture here, and I’m proud to be a part of it,” Coleman told Smart.

Asked about that culture after the game, Coleman delivered an impassioned defense of his head coach.

“It’s just the power that Coach Smart has and I’m just so happy for him because people shit on him, excuse my language,” Coleman said. “He takes the heat for those bad years that Texas had and it has led to this, and I’m just happy for him because I want this for him, not only for myself, but I want this for him because of what he’s been through. He’s been through a lot, and he’s been through it all here, and I’m happy for him.”

Even when Coleman was a sophomore, Smart said he was the player on the team who most thought like a coach on the court, but pushed Coleman be more willing to deliver tough messages to his teammates. When Smart delivers those tough messages to Coleman — “details of the game he needs to honor,” the Texas head coach called them — their longstanding relationship ensures effective communication between coach and player.

“I was kind of at his neck a little bit during the game — he threw that behind-the-back pass and had a couple other turnovers — so even in the 30-point game, you know, we’re kind of going back and forth, but we have that kind of relationship, and I think he knows that underneath everything that there is a foundation of love and respect,” Smart said on Sunday.

As a coach, that means understanding the balance between trying to squeeze more out of Coleman and letting his senior point guard play with the joy that has always defined Coleman’s play in his best moments, even dating back to his prep days in Virginia.

“Did you see, there was a play these in the first first half, where he scored, and then he ran back on defense, and then he jumped up in the air, like a deer? Just kind of randomly, and he’s done that before, and that’s when you know, he’s really good, you know, is when he’s just playing with this joy and he is just so excited and joyous to be out there. Sometimes that is the opposite of squeezing, squeezing, squeezing,” Smart said.

If Coleman’s play is any indicator, Smart is striking the right balance as Texas tries to continue proving its head coach’s maxim about winning in the Big 12 and winning in the NCAA Tournament with experienced guards.

“He’s playing at such a high level right now with so much confidence — this is what he came here to do,” Smart said on Sunday.

Known as “Matty Ice” to his teammates, Coleman has developed a habit of making big shots over the last year, banking in a three-pointer with 0.4 seconds remaining to beat Oklahoma last year, hitting a step-back jumper against North Carolina to win the Maui Invitational near the start of the 2020-21 season, and continuing to make clutch plays in late-game situations.

Against Texas Tech to open the Big 12 Tournament, Coleman made up for one of the low points of his Texas career — those three missed free throws as a freshman in Lubbock. Frustrated and unable to sleep after returning to Austin, Coleman shot free throws at Cooley Pavilion late into the night. As a senior, Coleman came through, making both attempts with 1.8 seconds remaining to push the Longhorns past the Red Raiders for a one-point victory.

Even when Coleman struggled through a tough game against Oklahoma late in the regular season, he battled through mentally and avoided the first scoreless game since his freshman season by hitting a jumper with 14 seconds left to give Texas a four-point lead.

Whether off the bounce or in catch-and-shoot situations, Coleman has steadily improved as a shooter — after only hitting 28.6 percent of his three-point attempts as a freshman, Coleman is now shooting 38.9 percent from distance while posting career bests of 48.8 percent from the field and 82.4 percent from the free-throw line. His 13.5 points per game are a career high.

But Coleman is also a seasoned defender with the willingness to take on tough assignments, like spending time guarding Oklahoma State Cade Cunningham during the title game at his own request.

And, of all the players currently on the team, Coleman has the best claim to performing at a high level in the NCAA Tournament, scoring 25 points in the overtime loss to Nevada in 2018 on 9-of-15 shooting, including 4-of-5 shooting on three-pointers, as well as four assists.

If that game provided a flash of what Coleman might become, shining on the big stage in Kansas City in the title game showed Smart’s senior point guard at his best — hopping in joy, letting everyone know it was going to be that Matty Ice kind of game.

Now Smart and Coleman lead the Longhorns into what may be the final game or games of Coleman’s Texas career, a culmination of the great longterm project of Smart’s time as a head coach recruiting and then coaching and molding Coleman over nine of his 12 years heading the programs at VCU and Texas.

Now they face defining moments in the NCAA Tournament as expectations reach the levels Smart and Coleman have spent years working to set as they hope to make some more March magic. Coleman will bring the joy and likely a clutch shot or two.