All season, Shaka Smart has preached to his team about the importance of resiliency in the face of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, noting frequently that the program that deals with adversity at the highest level will have a chance to excel in the NCAA tournament.
But while every program around the country has dealt with COVID-19 issues, including the No. 12 Texas Longhorns over the last month, the winter storm impacting the Lone Star State over the last week is unlike anything else that teams around the country have faced.
So that’s the storyline as the Longhorns finally got back to practice on Thursday and Friday in preparation for Saturday’s game against the No. 13 West Virginia Mountaineers at 2 p.m. on ABC.
Not only will the Texas players have to bounce back from the setback in the conditioning they’d just worked to rebuild after the long COVID-related layoff for many of them, as well as regaining the rhythm lost during that stretch, they also have to show mental fortitude following the disruptive trauma of losing power, not having water, and struggling to find food over recent days.
Last Saturday’s game against TCU was supposed to start a stretch of five games in 11 days for Texas. With Tuesday’s contest against Oklahoma pushed back to Wednesday and then Thursday and then postponed, the Longhorns also lost Thursday’s rescheduled game against the Cyclones.
Smart’s message to the team hasn’t changed.
“Since we are here together and we are trying to do something together, make it about the man next to you, encourage each other, lose yourself in each other,” Smart said. “So we’ll see how we do with that tomorrow.”
Often known as a player’s coach, Smart was laying into one of the Longhorns in practice. Then he started wondering, “What is he going through off the court? What has his family endured in the past several days? Has he fully recovered from having COVID?”
The circumstances present something of a conundrum for Smart as he faces the most important season of his Longhorns tenure with his most experienced team — how hard to push when there’s so much else going on?
“I want to say thank you to the UT athletics staff for the work they’ve done to help guys and student-athletes and coaches in those situations. We’ve had multiple people in our program be displaced from their home where they were no longer able to safely be where they were. And again, that’s happening to thousands of people all around the city. We’re trying to support them. I wasn’t really prepared for this because I’m from Wisconsin, and it snows all the time. But as I’ve learned over the last few days, this is different; like, I don’t care what cold weather places you’re from. It’s just a different circumstance here and now because of a few different factors.
“We just did try to support our guys and make sure they’re good with those basic things. There’s been times we’ve tried to, like go on a run for some food and some different things. I found myself in the grocery store on one of those days and it was like a scene out of a movie, man. Everyone’s just kind of trying to get as much as they could and get things figured out. And I’m, you know, I’m calling our guys, ‘Hey, do you need anything. What do you need?’ Just do the best you can.”
Now, with the majority of this major weather event now in the rearview, the Longhorns will look to do the best they can back on the hardwood against the Mountaineers.
During their first meeting in Morgantown on Jan. 9, Texas had only eight scholarship players available. Nevertheless, it was just enough, as five of those Longhorns scored in double figures, including 16 points from Andrew Jones, who drilled the game winning three to lift Texas to a 72-70 win. Since then, between covid-related issues and now, historic weather across the state, Texas has seen four games postponed and another cancelled, including road meetings against No. 9 Oklahoma and Iowa State that were respectively rescheduled to Tuesday and Thursday.
Of course, none of this does Texas many favors in terms of continuity, so it will be especially important for Texas’ veteran guard trio of Jones, Courtney Ramey, and Matt Coleman III to play well, as they did the first time around with 48 points in Morgantown.
As usual, it’s safe to expect those points won’t come easily against the often-swarming West Virginia defense. Meanwhile, Texas will need to match and ideally surpass the effort defensively with Miles McBride, Derek Culver, Taz Sherman and Sean McNeil collectively averaging 55.5 points per contest. Of course, Culver is an absolute force in the paint, as evident by his 14-point, 16-rebound double double against Texas earlier this season. Elsewhere, West Virginia isn’t especially efficient inside of the three-point line, ranking 292nd nationally with a mere 46 percent success rate. Beyond the perimeter, though, West Virginia’s experienced guards have provided plenty of offensive fireworks, which will be a key for Texas to defend on Saturday.
All told, West Virginia is what it usually is — relatively deep, features a dominant big man, has tremendous guard play, and defensively can cause plenty of frustration for a Texas team that’s dealt with more than enough frustration of its own simply navigating the circumstances this week.
Shortly, Smart and his Longhorns will look to return to some semblance of normalcy and look to complete a season-sweep over Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers.
“I don’t know if anyone could have anticipated this week, not just on our team but in general,” Smart said. “So where are our guys (mentally)? I think they’re happy to not be stuck 24 hours a day in their residence, but we just try to figure it out. I’m trying to encourage these guys, ‘Hey, since we are here together and we’re trying to do something together, make it about the man next to you.’”