It was evident from the opening tip Saturday evening at the Frank Erwin Center — Shaka Smart’s Longhorns just didn’t have enough firepower to take down Kansas.
You could see it when Texas fell behind 9-2 in the first three minutes, promptly forcing Smart to call a timeout. Even when the Longhorns pulled within five midway through the second half, the Texas head coach admitted he was unsure of whether his team could will itself to take control of the game.
“I didn’t think that our spirit was good enough at that point,” Smart said.
Texas was desperate. Kansas was decisive — and its 77-67 victory never really felt in jeopardy.
“It was pretty workmanlike,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said.
Hardly anything has been workmanlike for the Longhorns this season, including their 3–7 record in games decided by three points or less. Saturday was business as usual for Kansas, an all-time elite program that measures success by Final Four trips and winning national titles.
No need to mention the Big 12 championship in that criteria since the Jayhawks have seemingly placed a patent on it. Saturday’s win over Texas ensured sole possession of the Jayhawks’ 13th-consecutive conference title.
Anything but, of course, would’ve been a disappointment. Texas right now isn’t even within shouting distance of competing for a Big 12 crown.
But that all could change next season if Smart can get freshman forward Jarrett Allen and freshman guard Andrew Jones to come back for another year, despite both being projected first-round NBA draft picks.
The way Jones looked and talked following the loss to Kansas gave somewhat of a preliminary indication that he plans on returning.
“We gotta get in the gym,” Jones said. “This summer, we just gotta dedicate ourselves to improving our games every day so we can compete the way Kansas does.”
The real question is whether Allen will be joining them in that gym. The soft-spoken, tranquil forward is hard to get a read on. He’s played every bit like a first-round pick this season but has avoided talking about any future NBA plans. His relationship with Smart is one that is distinct and tightly knit.
“I get a real kick out of being around the guy,” Smart said. “He’s just a unique kid.”It’s hard to say Smart’s program hasn’t taken a step back after such a promising 2015–16 campaign. Despite losing six seniors and point guard Isaiah Taylor from last season, no one anticipated things would be this bad. Losing sophomore guard/forward and leading scorer Tevin Mack to suspension midseason didn’t make matters better. Smart announced on Monday that Mack will not return to Texas next season.
If Smart has been upset or frustrated with how this season has gone, he sure has done a good job of hiding it. He’s maintained a relatively positive demeanor and never expressed any real disdain. Smart can still get this Texas program back to where it was in Rick Barnes’ heyday — one right in the mix for the Big 12 title with the likes of Kansas and making NCAA tournament runs.
But as for right now, Texas is what it is — a program masquerading as a potential threat to Kansas with little to show for it.