To say the circumstances surrounding Shaka Smart’s third season on the Forty Acres have been less than ideal would be a sizable understatement.
By many accounts, the Texas Longhorns initially looked the part of a team that could become quite dangerous come March. Thirteen games in, the ‘Horns owned a 9-4 record with all four losses coming to teams that finished in in the top 10 of the final AP Top 25 of the regular season — No. 5 Duke, No. 6 Gonzaga, No. 9 Kansas, and No. 7 Michigan. The losses to Duke and Gonzaga came in overtime in Oregon as part of the PK80 Invitational. Texas was without Andrew Jones in its loss to Michigan after he fractured his wrist in a win over VCU, and the Kansas loss came courtesy of 17 Jayhawk threes.
Sure, the ‘Horns failing to get over the hump in each of those instances was less than ideal for Smart’s club, but Texas was proving it can stand toe-to-toe with the top teams in the country, and do so with three new starters and four freshmen heavily involved in the rotation.
But as quickly as the ‘Horns became a team with its fair share of promise, the leading scorer at that time after performing like an NBA-bound guard, Andrew Jones, was publicly diagnosed with leukemia on January 10.
The news effectively ended his sophomore season after just 10 games.
Of course, on that emotional night at the Frank Erwin Center, Texas provided an initial glimpse of its resiliency in a major way, matching its entire 2016-17 win total and earning its first ranked win since Smart’s debut season with a last-second, 99-98 overtime victory over No. 16 TCU. After failing to follow that momentum up days later in a narrow 65-64 loss on the road against Oklahoma State, the ‘Horns hosted No. 8 Texas Tech, and cruised to their first top-10 victory since the aforementioned Feb. 27 win over No. 3 Oklahoma.
And then came Texas Tech’s rematch.
After leading 61-57 with just 2:33 to play, Matt Coleman’s trip to the charity stripe for three free throws was entirely unsuccessful. After the three missed free throws, he fouled out the following defensive possession.
Moments later, the Red Raiders sparked an 8-0 run that paved the way for a 73-71 overtime victory after Keenan Evans’ jumper found its target at the buzzer.
It was the kind of loss that’s not only devastating for a team, but Coleman’s confidence in particular, as simply making just one of his three attempts could have sealed the deal.
But with little time to lick their wounds, Texas welcomed No. 12 Oklahoma just days later. This time around, however, after trailing 66-57, the ‘Horns went on a 22-8 run to notch yet another ranked win, thanks in large part to Coleman’s 15 second-half points and two clutch, last-minute free throws.
Resiliency, and much more of it, soon became necessary.
Texas dropped each of its next three games against Kansas State, TCU, and Baylor in overtime before capitalizing on a slumping No. 23 Oklahoma squad and stealing a double-digit road win. But once again, Texas failed to follow its momentum and dropped the following game against K-State for its fourth loss in five games.
The defeat placed Texas at 15-11 (5-8) and essentially in must-win mode down the stretch with two ranked foes coming up in the final three games — No. 6 Kansas and No. 20 West Virginia rounded out the final week of the regular season.
Faced with a sense of urgency unlike any it had endured previously this season, Texas hosted Oklahoma State, and did do so without Eric Davis Jr., who was held out of action due to his alleged role in an FBI probe surrounding the ASM Sports agency. Adding insult to injury, after Texas found itself down 36-32 at halftime, that deficit seemingly intensified with the news of Bamba toe injury that sidelined him in the second half. But despite the blow to Texas’ best big man, shortening an already short-handed rotation, the ‘Horns battled back from what blossomed into a 10-point second half hole, and ultimately made clutch plays to secure to a 63-62 lead with just 33 seconds remaining in a must-win affair.
And then Kendall Smith’s jumper connected with 22 ticks remaining, and the sense that the season was slipping away from Texas became palpable, from the anxiety-ridden Erwin Center to all the fans watching somewhere else.
For better or worse, what happened over those next 22 seconds would control the trajectory of Smart’s third season on the Forty Acres. Faced with that reality, Kerwin Roach II took matters into his own hands at the tail end of what was largely a broken play, and capitalized in resilient fashion.
Here’s the game-winning bucket by Kerwin Roach Jr. pic.twitter.com/qYaLFRxu72— Longhorn Network (@LonghornNetwork) February 24, 2018
The season-saving effort wasn’t enough to secure Texas’ NCAA Tournament aspirations, but it was more than enough to prevent them from vanishing entirely.
Exactly one week later, Texas faced a similar opportunity with West Virginia in town for the regular-season finale.
After struggling to keep pace with Kansas days earlier, Texas would essentially solidify its bid to the Big Dance with a win over West Virginia, as such an outcome would balloon the ‘Horns tourney hopes to a 98 percent chance to get in, as opposed to 57 percent with a loss, per ESPN’s BPI
Still without Bamba, still without Davis, and of course, still without Jones, Texas hosted a West Virginia team that curb-stomped Texas by 35 points in late January. Simply put, the circumstances weren’t exactly ideal for a team clawing for a tourney berth. But what Texas lacked in man-power, it made up for with resiliency.
Behind the strength of season-high scoring efforts from Roach and Coleman, as well as a career-best 17 points from Jericho Sims and 11 clutch points from Jacob Young and James Banks, Texas endured a slugfest throughout the entire 40 minutes of regulation before escaping with a 87-79 overtime victory.
Once again, Texas resiliency and will to win when a loss would prove so costly was apparent, and thus, the Longhorns have a 98 percent chance of going dancing, according to ESPN.
For that extra two percent, however, Texas can certainly afford to translate some of its resiliency into consistency.
For example, despite the five ranked wins for Texas, which have all come without Jones, and the latest coming without Bamba and Davis, as well, the ‘Horns haven’t enjoyed a winning streak since beating Iowa State and Ole Miss on Jan. 22 and Jan. 27, respectively.
Throughout the course of the Big 12 schedule, Smart’s team was entirely unable to string two conference wins together at any point.
With the NCAA Tournament fate still undecided, as Texas is currently among the Last Four in, per ESPN’s Bracketology, a Wednesday night win over Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament would all but lock up that March Madness bid. A loss, however, would create a nervous waiting game between late Wednesday evening and Selection Sunday. And regardless of what happens against Iowa State, and potentially beyond, if Texas does assume a spot in the field of 68, it truly becomes a win-or-go-home scenario for not just Texas, but every team in the country.
For as resilient as the ‘Horns have been at key points in a season in which it lost arguably its top talent for the season to cancer, its future lottery pick to an injury down the stretch, as well as a veteran scorer to an FBI probe that prompted an internal investigation, the ‘Horns have put themselves in position to steal an NCAA Tournament berth.
Resiliency since the turn of the new year earned that.
Resiliency has been enough, but it won’t be going forward. How quickly Texas adjusts and adapts to that reality will determine just how much longer Smart’s third season in Austin lasts.