Mac Engel

Shaka Smart’s a good coach, but at the wrong school. And he’s no Rick Barnes

In the same week Shaka Smart’s predecessor, Rick Barnes, brought another orange UT to No. 1 in the basketball polls, the Longhorns lost their eighth game of the season.

This won’t last, of course, but right now Rick Barnes’ University of Tennessee Volunteers are ranked ahead of Duke’s NBA lottery team. Barnes is doing at Tennessee exactly what he did at Texas, which is to make basketball relevant at a football-mad school.

Rick Barnes is the standard in Austin, and Shaka Smart isn’t even Tom Penders. Shaka may not even be Coach Matthew McConaughey.

Send your note of thanks to the greatest gift that Texas ever gave to the Big 12, Steve Patterson.

In just 22 months of employment in Austin, Patterson, the former University of Texas athletic director brought the Big 12 Charlie Strong and Shaka Smart. They are the same guy coaching different sports, and they are both good coaches in the wrong job.

The “Charlie Smart” era of domination allowed Kansas to beat Bevo in football, and while Tommy Boy Herman appears to have righted #TexasStrong, the ghosts of Patterson remain on the basketball court; Shaka Smart can’t shake what he is: A good mid-major coach with a major-major contract that will keep him in Austin.

Watching UT lose 65-61 against TCU on Wednesday night in Fort Worth, there is nothing the team showed they are good enough break out of this four-year trend under Smart.

Barnes is the standard for all college basketball coaches in Texas, and only a few are thriving at it: Jamie Dixon at TCU, Scott Drew at Baylor, and Chris Beard at Texas Tech. If you want to throw in Houston’s Kelvin Sampson go ahead.

In Texas, basketball simply has to be relevant, competitive, and maybe reach the Sweet 16 every so often. This is not the University of Texas.

They are 61-58 under Shaka, and it’s not improving.

Hired away from Virginia Commonwealth as a version of former Butler and current Celtics coach Brad Stevens, Shaka instead is a good version of himself. At UT, where people don’t care about basketball enough to make this an issue until it’s convenient, that’s not good enough.

Texas AD Chris Del Conte is no fan of firing anyone, especially people he likes, but he will have a hard decision to make in a few months. A major college athletic director has three primary goals: To raise money, and to hire football and men’s basketball coaches who win 20 games or so, thereby making fund raising easier.

When CDC was at TCU, he gave basketball coach Trent Johnson four seasons before he fired him and hired Dixon.

CDC’s primary issue with Smart is that the school is on the hook for a guaranteed $13 million; Smart is under contract through 2022-23.

Moving out Barnes may have been the best decision, but we are witnessing a coach who simply is at the wrong level.

The same thing happened to Strong, who thrived at Louisville, struggled at UT, and now is doing well at South Florida.

At the time Shaka was hired in 2015, he was one the most sought-after mid-major names on the market. He had led VCU to a Final Four, and five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances in his six-year tenure.

Whereas Strong never felt like a great move, Shaka did. It simply has not worked.

Not every college coach is cut out for a Power 5 job; they are brutal, nasty, and require a comfort level in a layer of scum and filth that is not for everyone.

Shaka is in his fourth season in Austin, and his first year remains his best year. Translation: He was winning with Barnes’ players, specifically guard Isaiah Taylor.

Shaka’s first season, in ‘15-’16, is his one year at UT with 20 wins. Shaka has been to the NCAA Tournament twice at UT, both ending in first round losses. They have not finished ranked in the Top 25 since he arrived.

On Wednesday night, UT trailed by double digits in the second half before making a push to make it a game later. Down three with less than 15 seconds remaining, the Horns were never able to get a good look at a 3-point attempt and lost by four.

“We’ve got to grab the game,” Smart said. “We were able to get some stops to get back in the game, but overall just not enough.”

It was more of the same for UT under Smart, who is 14-18 in games decided by three points or less.

Under Smart, UT has had some nice moments, and landed a one-and-doner last year in 2018 NBA lottery pick Mo Bamba.

Smart’s current roster is OK, but not talented, or deep, enough to do much of anything in the hardest basketball league in the nation.

Shaka is committed to sophomore guard Matt Coleman III, whom he has recruited since he was at VCU. Coleman III is a nice player, who, like his coach, simply looks like he is better suited for a different level.

Dumping Barnes may have been the right thing to do at the time, but the way it’s played out this successor was not a Smart decision (I worked on that for months).

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Mac Engel is an award-winning columnist who has extensive experience covering Fort Worth-Dallas area sports for 20 years. He has covered high schools, colleges, all four major sports teams as well as Olympic games and the world of entertainment, too. He combines dry wit with first-person reporting to complement a head of hair that is almost unfair.
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