Rosalynn Carter once said, "You have to have confidence in your ability, and then be tough enough to follow through."
Last season under head coach Rick Barnes, the Texas Longhorns were mostly devoid of said confidence and toughness; a deficit that was quite noticeable on the court. Consequently, the 17-year Texas head coach was fired after his Longhorns crept into the NCAA Tournament before losing their first tourney match up, yet again, despite entering the season ranked No. 10 nationally and talk of a prospective Final Four run.
Insert Shaka Smart, the 38-year-old mid-major mastermind who employed his "Havoc" style at VCU for six years prior to joining the burnt orange nation as the hire of the summer. But not only was Smart one of the most coveted coaches on the market this offseason – and basically every offseason since his 2011 Final Four run – he became the ideal hire for a Texas basketball program that had made underachieving a yearly ritual.
To this point, Smart has done anything but underachieve as the Horns’ new brain trust, despite his November 13 debut just now arriving. Equipped with a relationships-first personality and a coaching style that stresses confidence and toughness – both physically and mentally – Smart’s arrival brought with it an energy and enthusiasm that proclaims a revitalization of Texas basketball.
Luckily for Smart, he walked into a rather talent-rich situation in Austin, taking over a roster littered with skill, depth and veteran presence for his inaugural coaching effort on the 40 Acres. Texas featured much of the same for 2014-15, but the issue with the Longhorns last season was never talent -- it was the unfortunate fact that such a skilled group never seemed to gel together and compete with confidence under Barnes.
The same group that trudged off the court with hanging heads in Pittsburgh last March now looks to have a youthful exuberance about the game they came to Texas to play. There’s a new-found confidence and a dedication to improvement and success that simply hadn’t been present in recent years.
Texas point guard Isaiah Taylor was quoted via NCAA.com noting the immediately noticeable difference between the 2014-15 Longhorns and the group that will take the court in in November under Smart.
"A lot of people probably didn't believe in themselves," Taylor said. "I think a lot of people weren't afraid, but they didn't want to make a mistake and make anybody mad. This year, Shaka is basically telling us that there are going to be mistakes, but you've just got to limit those mistakes. It's all about positive reinforcement with him."
This culture change the Texas staff is implementing is unfamiliar territory for a group that’s seen considerably limited success throughout their time on campus, but it’s quite typical of a Shaka Smart-coached team. Through his five core values – appreciation, enthusiasm, competitiveness, accountability and what he calls "teamship" – Smart is building a unit that will feel completely confident and capable each time the bright lights are on; an absolutely essential quality in the rigorous Big 12.
But this transformation of Texas basketball goes much further than Smart’s core values.
It begins with relationships.
Smart makes it a priority to keep consistent contact with each member of his roster, along with those being recruited. This may be through texting, phone calls, or simply showing up at Isaiah Taylor’s dorm just to talk to the star point guard and get to know him. Rather than simply being a basketball coach, Smart sets out to personally know his players -- their likes, dislikes, how they’re doing in school, and how their families are doing, among countless other topics.
Whether developing a family feel is an unconventional method or not, it’s Smart’s style and, as noted in a terrific article by Sports Illustrated’s Brian Hamilton, it’s necessary for moving the program forward.
"Every coach has his style, and no one way is necessarily the best. I just try to be around these guys," Smart told SI. "The relationship part of it is what's going to allow us to move to the next step."
So what’s that next step?
Based on the praises that have followed Smart throughout his coaching career, it would be his uncanny ability to instill unparalleled confidence into his players.
Current assistant coach Mike Morrell, also an assistant coach under Smart at VCU, spoke admirably about the impact Smart has on basically everyone around him, via Michael Litos’ piece, "The Tao Of Shaka".
"He believes in people more than they believe in themselves," said Morrell. "He does that with players, GAs, managers, assistant coaches. He’s done it to me. He sees what we can be better than we can. He sees what’s in us."
Former VCU assistant Will Wade echoed Morrell’s sentiments, saying, "He has an unbelievable belief and confidence, and gives players that kind of confidence."
This has been the case for freshman guard Eric Davis, who’s known as a supremely confident player. Transitioning from high school to a D-1 program in a Power Five conference can do more than just rattle an 18 or 19-year-old kid’s confidence a little bit. That transition becomes much smoother when you have a coach like Smart on your side, repetitively providing words of encouragement.
"When you've got coaches like him believing in you, when you hear the head coach telling you that you're good, that you're doing great this summer, that builds confidence," Davis said on LHN. "Obviously, when you're out there getting some buckets, that kinda helps, too."
Smart implants this confidence in a variety of ways. Some coaches bring the loving reinforcement that you’re a slight adjustment or two away from the goal; keep pushing. Some coaches go the route of yelling, getting vocal to make their demands felt – though most not to the level of Bob Knight, of course. And then there’s the coaches that are few and far between, the ones that compete with you and challenge you on the court, in the weight room, and in every day life, in general.
Smart is the latter, primarily following the positive-reinforcement style, something that's already impacted the freshman Davis.
"In a loving way," Davis noted when asked about how Smart approaches his players. "He's never going to tell you anything wrong. He's always going to keep it real with you. He's just gonna come up to you and tell you 'you're doing a great job, but maybe you need to work on this, or work on that, but overall, you're doing a great job.'He's filling you always with confidence."
Last season, it seemed as if Texas players were timid and afraid to make mistakes in fear of being sidelined. This won’t be the case for Texas this year. Smart teaches his team to simply "focus on the next most important thing," whether it be answering a scoring burst with one of their own, coming up with a significant stop with time running out, or simply continuing to execute when things are going the Longhorns’ way. And when the ball simply isn’t rolling in Texas favor and things aren’t clicking the way they may have in practice or the game before, Smart urges his team to remain confident.
The message seems to have stuck with freshman wing Tevin Mack after only months under Smart’s tutelage.
"Stay confident," Mack said. "Never get too high, never get too low. Always keep a level head."
He’s drilling this mindset into his player’s heads daily. If Texas hadn’t improved this offseason in any way other than learning to put mistakes behind them and focus on the next play, which they failed to do far too often last season, they would still prove to be a significantly improved unit on the court.
There’s no better example of this than the daily competitions Smart and his staff have introduced in practice. Whether its shooting drills, defensive competitions or one-on-one battles, Smart praises the winners with their name posted for all to see, including the Longhorns on the losing end of such challenges. While it instills confidence in those headlining the daily competitions, it serves as motivation the next day to place your name atop the leader board.
Texas will continue to make strides towards becoming the team Smart envisions for 2015-16. In a recent Longhorn Network feature on Texas basketball, numerous players, including Taylor, Maryland transfer Shaquille Cleare and freshman guard Kerwin Roach all made note of how the training they’ve endured this offseason easily trumps anything they’ve ever been through, and it’s apparent by simply observing their physical condition. But it’s all for a purpose. As senior forward Conner Lammert put it, "There’s a method to what they're doing. They're turning us slowly into ravenous beasts."
With the season now set to begin, Texas is one of the most physically prepared team in all of college basketball. In the words of senior guard Demarcus Holland, "We want to go out and just manhandle people."
"We never show the other team or anyone watching us that we're tired, ever," Smart likes to say. "We don't go down on our knees. We don't lean on the pad. We stand up."
How much of his scheme will translate to Texas remains to be seen, but there’s no question Texas will play extremely fast and relentless on both sides of the ball. As BON’s own Jeff Haley noted shortly after Smart’s hire, 32 percent of VCU’s initial shots came within 10 seconds of live ball possessions last season. With things moving so quickly, there isn’t much time to sit back, think about the next pass and catch a breath, as Texas had plenty of opportunities to do in 2014-15.
They have to be able to make decisions quickly and if they aren’t completely confident in what they’re doing, there will be far more mistakes made than Smart will be willing to accept.
But it’s safe to expect quite the opposite from Smart’s Longhorns in November. Through the glimpses we’ve had into Texas’ practices, training exercises, and the overall chemistry that’s already become boldly apparent between the Texas staff and players, we see the transformation of a team that looks nothing like when we last saw them in March.
Physically, they’re more capable. They’re in tune with what the coaching staff is selling them and are actually having fun growing as basketball players. Most importantly, they’re increasingly confident with each day, and for a team as rich with talent as Texas is, that will translate to success on the court.
And Smart will have seen that in his players before they did themselves.