AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Longhorns have gone from unwatchable to unbeatable.
In the process, they are slowing turning the conversation about coach Shaka Smart, whose five-year tenure looked destined to be coming to a close when the Longhorns were buried near the bottom of the Big 12 just two weeks ago.
The Longhorns have since stormed through a five-game win streak with a lineup that has overcome season-ending injuries to key players. The surge has recast Texas (19-11, 9-8) as an NCAA Tournament bubble team heading into the last weekend of the regular season and Saturday’s home matchup against Oklahoma State.
Smart looked like a goner two weeks ago. The streak, and the possibility of making the tournament, are a strong argument to let him stick around.
“We were roundly criticized early in the season for not being tough or not playing for the right things. Not having heart,” Smart said Tuesday night after Texas beat Oklahoma 52-51 on a bank shot 3-pointer.
“And I think this is a great lesson for our guys. When they lose themselves in the fight and play for each other, then all of sudden you become tougher. All of a sudden, your heart shows. It tends to work out better in the win-loss column,” Smart said.
When Texas lost by 38 at West Virginia on Jan. 20 and by 30 at Iowa State on Feb. 15, Texas fans were calculating the more than $10 million buyout on the three years left on Smart’s contract. And they stayed away: The Longhorns have played many games this season in a half-empty or worse arena.
Injuries were slowly picking the team apart. Big man Jericho Sims was sidelined for the season with a back injury. Sharp-shooting guard Jase Febres was lost with a knee injury. Starting point guard Matt Coleman III was hobbled by a heel problem.
Yet a new, smaller, quicker and grittier lineup emerged that hasn’t backed down from anything.
Andrew Jones, who overcame a leukemia two seasons ago, has returned to form as a dangerous scorer. Courtney Ramey has emerged as an efficient ball handler and scorer. Little-used Brock Cunningham has become a tenacious defender and rebounder, the player who does the dirty work necessary to keep possessions alive.
“I think everyone was upset with the losing,” Cunningham said. “I think we found a new identity these past couple of games … Guys desperate to win.
And a little bit lucky when needed.
After four consecutive wins by double digits, Texas beat Oklahoma when Coleman banked in a running 3-pointer with 0.4 seconds to play. The shot came after Oklahoma missed three of its final four free throws that could have put the game away.
Smart can enjoy the streak, but it also raises questions whether he should have been playing this lineup, or something close to it, before injuries forced his hand.
Smart is 90-77 overall and 40-49 in the Big 12. Win on Saturday and Texas will finish above .500 in the Big 12 for just the second time Smart’s five years.
Lose, however, and nothing is guaranteed except more conversation about Smart’s future. The Longhorns have missed the tournament two of the past four seasons and got bounced in the first round the two years they did. Texas won the National Invitation Tournament last season but no one wants to go there again.
“Just gotta take care of business on Saturday,” Coleman said.
Smart took to social media this week to plead with students to come to the game and to come early.
“UT students, we need you,” Smart said in a video posted on Twitter. “Bottom line, our guys need you in the building. It is a huge game for us and we need the energy you bring.”