KANSAS CITY — After Shaka Smart’s Texas Longhorns lost to fall to a mediocre 16-16, and will now hope to become the first-ever .500 team to make the NCAA tournament, Athletic Director Chris Del Conte failed to give a ringing endorsement of his head coach when asked whether Smart would return next season.
“I won’t comment on that,” Del Conte said. “We’re right in the middle of the season. That’s crazy. Shaka’s our coach. He’s an awesome coach. … That’s ludicrous talk.”
It’s hardly out of bounds to ask Del Conte — who did not hire Smart four years ago — about Smart’s future. In fact, this is a topic that has made its way through the coaching carousel mill over the last couple weeks.
Would Texas buy him out for nearly $13 million?
Would Smart find a spot somewhere else that suits him better?
The university has a big budget, and while Smart has certainly underachieved relative to the expectations when he was brought to Austin four years ago, it’s not as though it’s been a complete train wreck.
If the NCAA Tournament selection committee does make history and takes a Texas team that is 16-16, Smart will have gone to his third tournament in four seasons. But that wasn’t enough to keep Rick Barnes in Austin; he was jettisoned after going to 17 tourneys in 18 seasons.
There are wins over North Carolina in Las Vegas, against Purdue, at Kansas State and at home to Kansas and Iowa State. But there are the head-scratching losses, too – to Radford, Providence, at Oklahoma State and at Georgia.
When Kansas coach Bill Self was asked to state a case for Texas’ inclusion into the NCAA tourney, he began by mentioning the Longhorns talent.
That’s a sign of how Smart has underachieved with this group.
He had a high-lottery pick last year in Mo Bamba. This year he may have another one-and-done lottery pick in Jayson Hayes. Kerwin Roach II and Dylan Osetkowski are both seniors who are gone.
“They are top three in the league in terms of talent,” one Big 12 coach told me. “There’s no way when a team like Baylor is cruising into the NCAA tournament that Texas should be on the bubble.”
There was a time, not all that long ago, when Smart and Brad Stevens were mentioned in the same breath. The two guys who weren’t going to leave their mid-major spots – VCU and Butler – for just any job. Stevens left for the NBA’s storied franchise in Boston while Smart went to the Big 12 and Texas.
After four seasons, Smart is 66-66 overall. He’s 16-16 this season and hasn’t gotten past the first round of the NCAA tourney thus far in his tenure.
It’s the definition of mediocrity.
Smart isn’t going to just walk and leave $13 million on the table, but could he find a spot where he is better-suited – and not take a hit money-wise – and get a fresh start. Sources told Stadium that Del Conte hasn’t been happy with the results and would strongly consider making a move if not for the buyout.
Del Conte did make one thing clear. In the current landscape of college basketball, where coaches are being suspended and subpoenaed, Smart’s character is an underrated aspect.
“He’s got integrity,” Del Conte told me. “Let’s talk about integrity.”
But will integrity, coupled with the $12.9 million buyout be enough to get him another chance to prove the nay-sayers wrong?