March Madness 2020: Texas’ buzzer-beater quiets media calling for Shaka Smart’s job

Shaka Smart’s firing as head coach of the Texas Longhorns became unofficially, officially inevitable late on the evening of Feb. 16, when ESPN’s NBA wizard Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Cleveland Cavaliers and coach John Beilein were on the verge of a disheartening but apparently amicable breakup.

Austin is 1,376 miles from Cleveland, and the Big 12 is a pretty far piece from the NBA, so these two items would seem to be unrelated. Smart’s Longhorns had lost their fourth consecutive game just 32 hours before the Beilein news broke, however; they stood at 14-11 and appeared well on their way to missing the NCAA Tournament for the third time in his five seasons.

Aristotle is credited with the phrase, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” No one ever has said, “If there is no vacuum, the sports media happily will create one.” Until now. The latter actually might be more accurate. There were scores of media comments regarding Beilein’s suitability to become the Texas coach, even though Smart still held the position.

FAGAN: March Madness predictions 3.0: Projecting final 2020 NCAA Tournament field

There is no question Smart’s five seasons with the Longhorns haven’t reached the level imagined when he was hired away from VCU with five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and the astonishing 2011 Final Four run on his resume.

His two NCAA Tournament teams in the first four years in Austin didn’t last long: The first, in 2016, finished 20-13 and earned a No. 6 seed but was beaten by Northern Iowa in the first round. The second, two years later, at least made it an extra five minutes, losing in overtime as a No. 10 seed to No. 7 seed Nevada.

Smart was no one-hit wonder at VCU. His teams there averaged 27 wins, even though they stepped up in class from the Colonial Athletic Association to the Atlantic 10 midway through his six seasons. At Texas, though, he has not recruited a high-quality point guard. Only holdover Isaiah Taylor, the quarterback of his first team, ever managed to produce more than 4.1 assists per game. Matt Coleman has been a fine college player, but never a game-changing playmaker. Smart has neither recreated the “Havoc” fullcourt pressure that was his brand at VCU nor established a suitable alternative identity.

Had this Texas team continued playing .560 ball and missed out on March Madness yet again, it would have been reasonable for those supervising Smart to pursue another course. However, since that day in mid-February — when so many in the media rushed to install the newly available Beilein in the position still occupied by Smart — the Longhorns are playing 1.000 ball.

They beat TCU at home and Kansas State on the road. They drilled West Virginia, a prominent seed in the NCAA selection committee’s official bracket preview. They then won at Texas Tech and Oklahoma, two teams that have been entrenched in most media bracket projections.

The Longhorns might be an NCAA Tournament team.

And it’s glorious.

DECOURCY: Beilein would be prize of coaching carousel if he returns to college

I’ve been in sports journalism for just short of 40 years and never have understood the zeal many in the business demonstrate for firing coaches. I wrote about my discomfort with this phenomenon in Basketball Times all the way back in 1993, after California dumped Lou Campanelli toward the end of his eighth season on the job. My attitude toward this has not changed.

There is no issue with a writer or broadcaster calling someone a crummy coach, though it helps to have some evidence to back up that opinion. But one would think — after all the many hundreds or thousands of journalists have seen their jobs disappear in the past three decades — that those still fortunate to be employed in this business might be more empathetic or circumspect.

Monday night, the Longhorns appeared to be destined for a furiously contested road defeat that would spoil their NCAA Tournament dreams. Oklahoma’s Kristian Doolittle went to the free throw line with six seconds remaining and a 2-point lead he could have stretched beyond UT’s reach. He missed twice; Texas’ Brock Cunningham grabbed an uncontested rebound and handed the ball to Coleman, who advanced the ball upcourt, met little resistance and launched a 26-footer that banked in. That was worth three points, exactly what Texas needed to win the game and improve their record to 19-11.

ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla has this saying that, at its essence, sums up what life can be like while laboring to build a successful college basketball program: He describes a last-second shot floating through the air, with the whims of the public, the athletic administration, the university administration and, of course, the media vacillating as it travels toward the goal.

“Good coach … bad coach … good coach … bad coach.”

That could apply to either person on either bench.

It happens that Fraschilla was calling the game as Coleman raced toward victory. When the shot slammed through the goal, Fraschilla shouted, “OH MY GOODNESS! The season stays alive!”

He might also have been talking about Smart’s tenure at Texas. Even at 110 decibels, subtlety is an option.

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