For 17 years, Texas basketball was willing to coast on complacency, allowing Rick Barnes to quietly run the hoops program at a football-crazed school just as long as things never got too embarrassing. Barnes was a quality coach by almost every measure: he made the NCAA Tournament 16 times, reached the Final Four in 2003 and recruited pros like LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant and Myles Turner.
But for a program long described as a "sleeping giant," Barnes rarely seemed capable of delivering the type of seismic jolt that would get Longhorns basketball out of its slumber. Shaka Smart was hired to change that, and to a degree, it already feels like he has.
Texas isn't where they want to be yet, but you can see the early signs of Smart's vision in his first season. It was there when the Longhorns upset No. 3 North Carolina by matching their athleticism at every position. It was there when they went press-for-press with No. 6 West Virginia and earned the win in Morgantown. And it was there when Texas strong-armed the tempo away from a bigger Vanderbilt team for a decisive victory.
Barnes helped develop some great players during his tenure, but his teams always felt like they lacked an identity. The pieces just never fit quite right, and the his best talent rarely coalesced in the same year. Finding an identity has never been an issue for Shaka Smart, and the early returns suggest it won't be one at Texas, either.
Smart's Longhorns are going to be fast, tenacious and unrelenting. They will give you VCU's HAVOC system on steroids, this time sparked by the wealthiest athletic department in the country and Big 12-caliber athletes. It's early, but Smart already has the foundation laid. That should be a scary thought for the rest of the conference.
Kerwin Roach Jr., Eric Davis Jr. and Tevin Mack make up Smart's first wave of recruits, and they serve as a warning sign for what Texas is going to be all about. Each is quick and long enough to play the type of ball pressure defense Smart demands, whether it's for 94-feet or merely giving you hell as soon as you cross halfcourt.
All three bring something different to the table. Davis, a speedy 6'2 off-guard, might be the most complete player of the group so far as the best shooter (37 percent from three) and a natural scorer. Mack, a former VCU commit, is the biggest at 6'6 and projects as another capable two-way player. Roach is one of the best athletes in the country and he plays as fast as he looks in an empty gym:
Next season's recruiting class might be even better, led by 6'4 combo guard Andrew Jones (Smart's first McDonald's All-American) and top 100 big man James Banks. The final piece could be center Jarrett Allen, a five-star recruit from Houston who could tie together Smart's grand plan on both ends.
Smart isn't worried about next year just yet, though. Texas is in line for an NCAA Tournament bid at 18-10, with a 5-4 record against top 25 opponents. That has them positioned as a No. 6 seed right now, according to our Chris Dobbertean's latest projection.
Texas could have been sunk when senior center Cam Ridley, one of the two best players on the team, broke his foot in December. Instead, the Longhorns responded by beating Iowa State, Baylor and West Virginia (twice). Barnes left Smart with some nice parting gifts, and it has this team coming together sooner than most expected.
Junior point guard Isaiah Taylor has been tremendous, leading the team in scoring (15.3 points) and assists (5) per game. Senior Connor Lammert has given Texas shooting in the front court out of a 6'9, 240-pound big man, and Prince Ibeh has turned into a rim protecting senior star who might get drafted despite averaging a career-high 4.1 points per game this season.
The biggest key might be Smart's unrelenting positivity, which is a dramatic change of approach from Barnes. Texas is playing free instead of scared, and it's had a ripple effect up and down the roster. Take it from Taylor, who said this after he scored 28 to lead Texas over Iowa State just thee days after a bad loss to TCU:
"I did get down on myself too much at TCU," Taylor said. "But (Smart) really just focuses on response. That's what me and my team did today."
Texas isn't there yet, but it's easy to be convinced Smart will have this program rolling soon. There's a reason this was widely considered the best non-blueblood job in the country. The budget is limitless, the local recruiting grounds are fertile and the coach has a way of motivating even bipartisan observers to be the best person they can be.
Doubt Smart at your own peril, but he hasn't failed before. Still only 38 years old and equipped with the resources every coach dreams about, it's only a matter of time before this sleeping giant is finally awake.
* * *
SB Nation Presents: Kerwin Roach soars for one of the best dunks of the year