Winning the NIT is the Worst Thing that could have Happened to Texas Hoops

UT’s ‘skinniest kid in fat camp’ NIT title guarantees another year of Shaka Smart — and bad basketball

Let me take you back to October, 2015.

Embattled Texas football coach Charlie Strong — whose seat was hotter than Margaery Tyrell in season 4 of Game of Thrones — carried a 1-4 record into the Red River Shootout against undefeated Oklahoma. A week earlier, the Strong era had hit “rock bottom” after an ugly 50-7 defeat against TCU, and it seemed he was sure to be fired at the end of the year.

What happened? The Longhorns defeated the #10 Sooners in a stunner, and the lasting image of the game (and season) was Strong grinning ear to ear in a gold cowboy hat as he celebrated postgame. I remember watching it unfold and telling my dad that the instant gratification of the win would lead to Strong retaining his job for one more year, ensuring additional disappointment in Austin.

Sure enough, despite going 5-7, Strong was given one more year to waste prove himself; he went 5-7 again and was booted. His replacement, Tom Herman, cleaned up the wreckage and led the ‘Horns to a Sugar Bowl championship within two years.

I’m telling you this because the parallels between Strong’s big win and Shaka Smart’s NIT title are profound — and terrifying. Just like the former’s fool’s gold victory, Smart’s “triumph” in an irrelevant tournament creates an illusion of hope that apparently handcuffs the athletic department into retaining him for another season.

This is the worst thing that could have happened. I want Texas to win, but I want them to win games that matter. Beating Lipscomb for the NIT title with a roster full of 4- and 5- stars and a head coach “earning” the nation’s 12th highest salary is an embarrassing thing to celebrate.

If Texas had flamed out early, the school could have easily moved on from Smart, just as Alabama did with coach Avery Johnson after their first round NIT defeat. ‘Bama ripped off the bandaid; by retaining Smart, AD Chris del Conte is cutting deeper into the wound.  

The 2019-20 forecast looks rough — along with Smart’s retention, the team’s going to be ravaged by graduations and early NBA departures (Kerwin Roach and Dylan Osetkowski graduate; Jaxson Hayes is off to the draft lottery). If Shaka could only go 11-22 in 2016 with Jarrett Allen (who looks like a future NBA All-Star), Roach and a healthy Andrew Jones, it’s hard to think that next year’s squad is going to be any better. There’s going to be a lot of pressure on Courtney Ramey. 

The football team’s turnaround demonstrates that, all else held equal, a good head coach can swing the direction of a program, and in short order. We have superfluous evidence that Shaka Smart is a really, really poor head coach who’s handicapping the program.

A meaningless NIT trophy simply delays Smart’s inevitable and deserved departure. By keeping him around, Texas seems intent on running the hoops program even further into the ground.  

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