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A path forward for Shaka Smart at Texas looks more difficult than ever

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The embarrassing upset against Abilene Christian and roster turnover combine to make a change seem necessary in Austin.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Abilene Christian at Texas Andrew Nelles-USA TODAY Sports

The moment of reckoning came and went.

An almost exclusively long-term approach to roster building by head coach Shaka Smart with the Texas Longhorns was supposed to pay off in his sixth season with three experienced lead guards, including senior point guard Matt Coleman, and one of the most athletic frontcourts in the nation.

Until the final game, that moment of reckoning, the most important game of Smart’s Texas tenure, the plan did pay off.

Texas got off to a 10-1 start that included an historic blowout against Kansas in Lawrence and a last-second win over West Virginia in Morgantown. COVID-19 issues helped derail that strong start, but the Longhorns managed to avoid any of the bad losses that defined previous campaigns under Smart and closed out the regular season with six wins in the last eight games, including playing the last four contests on a road.

In the Big 12 Tournament, Coleman’s clutch free throws in the opening game pushed Texas past Texas Tech for the first time in the 2020-21 season.

After benefitting from the forced withdrawal of Kansas from Kansas City thanks to positive COVID-19 tests in the Jayhawks program, the Longhorns won the school’s first tournament title in seven tries with a win over the red-hot Cowboys and freshman sensation Cade Cunningham.

Coleman was phenomenal in that game, too, scoring a career-high 30 points in becoming the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

The two tournament wins, the largely consistent play all season without a regular season-loss outside the top 40 teams in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metrics (Oklahoma dropped to No. 42 after its NCAA Tournament loss in the second round), and Smart’s recurrent mantra about experienced guards winning in March provided plenty of justified optimism as Texas landed a No. 3 seed and a game against No. 14 seed Abilene Christian with Smart looking for his first NCAA Tournament win leading the Horns.

It was Smart’s chance to prove that all the adversity through his first five seasons were worth the wait.

What happened in Indianapolis against the Wildcats was nothing less than an absolutely wretched disaster. After the game, Coleman said he felt like he was in the midst of a nightmare. Most burnt orange partisans surely find that feeling relatable.

Against the swarming, ball-denial defense from Abilene Christian, the poise of those key lead guards disintegrated as Coleman and redshirt junior guard Andrew Jones dealt with foul trouble in the first half. Constant turnovers, 23 in all, and an inability to close defensive possessions with rebounds, including on the final play for ACU, eventually led to an improbable Texas defeat.

No team in NCAA Tournament history had ever won a game while shooting less than 30 percent from the field and less than 20 percent from three-point range. Failure to clear that bar always meant a March Madness loss. All 40 times. Until late Saturday night.

It was an absolute anomaly, mostly caused by 27 more shots taken by Abilene Christian. With that large of an advantage in shot volume, perhaps it’s no surprise that a handful of those attempts during the key stretch of the second half went through the net more through luck than any level of skill. Regardless, Smart’s team failed to make the Wildcats feel like they didn’t belong on the same court.

In the second round against No. 11 seed UCLA, ACU didn’t have the same level of defensive intensity and shot poorly once again, unable to create extra possessions and unable to hit those difficult shots in a second straight game. After embarrassing the Longhorns, the Wildcats were run off the court by the Bruins.

Smart’s third NCAA Tournament loss, this time with his best team since taking the job, once again leaves him on the hot seat with all the goodwill from the 2020-21 season and most specifically the Big 12 Tournament title gone by the wayside as the fans who gave him a second chance or a third chance or a fourth chance understandably bailed on the Texas head coach in the immediate aftermath of the Abilene Christian loss.

Now athletics director Chris Del Conte faces one of the biggest decisions of his Texas tenure. Smart is still owed $7.1 million over the next two years, fully guaranteed, as the program enters an unprecedented offseason that has already featured some unexpected roster turnover with senior forward Royce Hamm Jr. and sophomore guard Donovan Williams both entering the NCAA transfer portal.

Sophomore forward Kai Jones went pro on Wednesday, freshman forward Greg Brown III is still expected to declare for the 2021 NBA Draft in the coming days, and neither Coleman nor senior forward Jericho Sims are expected to return. Right now, there’s only four players thought likely to come back, along with four signees, potentially leaving five or more scholarships available for next season on a roster losing a level of talent that will be difficult or impossible to replace before the 2021-22 season.

With the NCAA still expected to approve a one-time transfer waiver, this college basketball offseason will unquestionably feature the closest thing possible to outright free agency.

So one question Del Conte has to answer is whether Smart deserves to rebuild this roster after the disappointing loss to Abilene Christian — a new coach would be able to quickly shape the program in his image through a transfer portal stocked with a combination of former high-level recruits and productive mid-major players if the NCAA does follow through with that legislation.

Firing Smart and hiring a new coach might also represent some risk, however, not just in potentially losing any of the four recruits currently signed in the 2021 recruiting class, but also in whether Del Conte can actually can actually find an upgrade to Smart.

While that might seem like a low bar to clear, there are plenty of failed coaching hires by programs like Texas and no clear-cut candidates who would obviously take the opportunity to replace Smart. After all, when moving beyond Smart’s failures at Texas, one of the few accomplishments of former athletics director Steve Patterson was landing Smart after he’d turned down numerous opportunities, including Illinois and UCLA. It might be more difficult to land one of the top several targets this time around,

Would someone like Chris Beard or Eric Musselman or Nate Oats or Brad Underwood take the Texas job? Could Texas afford those coaches?

Beard makes over $5 million per year and has a $4 million buyout in the Big 12 after April 1, not to mention a level of job security and fan support that would be difficult to replicate at Texas, even with some quick success.

Musselman is still coaching Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament with a looming Sweet 16 matchup against No. 15 seed Oral Roberts and has a buyout of $5 million until April 30. If the Razorbacks beat the Golden Eagles, and probably even with a loss, expect athletics director Hunter Yurachek to move quickly to extend Musselman, give him a raise, and increase his buyout to keep a program like the Longhorns from hiring him away.

Oats has a $12.6 million buyout this year — hiring him away from Alabama would cost Texas nearly $20 million without even considering his contract from the Longhorns.

Underwood has a buyout of somewhere less than $8 million.

Of those coaches, Beard seems the most capable of an immediate turnaround. Not a guarantee — Beard doesn’t yet rate among the small handful of college coaches deserving of that estimation — just much more proven at this level in a way that Smart was not when he came from VCU.

But again, it wouldn’t just be expensive to hire Beard, it’s also reasonably unlikely, at best, that he would even take the job. Replacing Smart just isn’t much of an upgrade for his career prospects.

If cost and availability weren’t at issue, Musselman, Oats, and Underwood would all be reasonable bets to have more success than Smart at Texas, especially if the standard is merely winning an NCAA Tournament game and not winning a regular-season or postseason title, rather more difficult tasks. But cost and availability are big issues with those coaches, too.

Would it be worth the risk to try to replicate Michigan’s success under Juwan Howard by hiring Texas alum Royal Ivey, the Brooklyn Nets assistant with no head coaching experience?

Whether or not Ivey would acclimate well to recruiting and being a head coach for the first time is a complete unknown. To succeed, he’d almost certainly have to make the right hires for his bench — an assistant with previous head coaching experience like Phil Martelli at Michigan, and a high-level recruiter.

Just the monumental task of roster management this year will put such tremendous pressure on either Smart or the new staff that Ivey — as tempting as it is to cover the blank slate of his head coaching career with tales of possible successes — seems like a poor fit for the current state of the Texas program.

While Del Conte has to consider those questions about potential replacements in the coming days, his decision matrix doesn’t just feature concerns about securing a primary target — it’s also about the risks of how the fan base would react to a rebuilt roster that almost certainly won’t come close to achieving the success of the 2021-22 season as Texas prepares to open the Moody Center in 2023.

The enthusiasm created by an absolutely justified coaching change and the ability of the next head coach to build the Longhorns roster in their own image sounds more like what the program needs to generate positive momentum within it and the fan base for the Moody Center debut than the fan base using Smart as a punching bag for at least another season every time Texas loses a game.

To borrow the longtime phrase associated with the football program’s worst moments of dysfunction, the BBs are out of the box after the Abilene Christian loss.

Now Del Conte has to decide if regular-season improvement and the school’s only Big 12 Tournament title outweigh the ugly season-ending defeat and the fan base’s antipathy towards Smart. Del Conte has to decide what to do about the fact that the most important game of Smart’s tenure was a loss so bad it wasn’t just statistically improbable, it had been statistically impossible in prior NCAA Tournament history.

So far, there’s no public insight what Del Conte is thinking privately, but hoping that Smart can justify his continued retention by achieving whatever qualifies as necessary success with a rebuilt roster next season after such a spectacular failure in the NCAA Tournament with his guys this season doesn’t seem like a strong long-term plan. Or even much of a plan at all.

It just hasn’t worked for Smart at Texas.