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Shaka Smart is Good for Texas, but Doesn't Guarantee an End to Kansas' Streak

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Shaka Smart put VCU on the map with a Final Four run and six consecutive 26-plus win seasons. Whether that translates to direct success in the Big 12 Conference remains to be seen.

Shaka Smart, named Texas head basketball coach last week, will have to adjust to a physical Big 12 Conference schedule.
Shaka Smart, named Texas head basketball coach last week, will have to adjust to a physical Big 12 Conference schedule.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Shaka Smart can coach.

There is no debating the 38-year-old can not only recruit, but win his fair share (75 percent) of on-court battles. He became the second-youngest head coach to reach the 100-win mark in 2013.

Texas Longhorn fans started ordering Strong-Smart shirts (named after Shaka and head UT football coach Charlie Strong) as soon as Smart was officially named head coach last week.

He is a great ambassador for the Big 12 Conference, and brings youth, energy and success to a conference annually ridiculed for falling flat in the Big Dance, and a team almost annually picked to dethrone the Kansas Jayhawks as champions.

But let's not crown him King of the Big 12 just yet. There's a guy in Lawrence, KS who may have something to say about that.

However, Smart, the head coach of Virginia Commonwealth University the past six seasons, arrived in Austin last week for his first press conference with some refreshing candor.

Your move Bill Self.

Most took that as a jab at Self's Jayhawks, after Smart's Rams defeated Kansas 71-61 in a 2011 Elite Eight match-up.

In reality, all Self probably did when he was made aware of those comments was smile his wry smile, you know, the one he flashes every time John Higgins blows his whistle, and make some remark about how good of a coach Smart is and will be.

But just how successful was Smart during his tenure in Richmond?

For starters, he took the Rams to five straight NCAA Tournaments (after winning the CBI in 2010), won six tournament games, and notched the school's first Final Four in 2011.

From the Rams' first season in 1968 until 2009, VCU went to the Tournament nine times and won a total of five games.

Smart 1, Previous Nine VCU Coaches 0.

Smart's squads won 26 games each of the past two seasons, the fewest amount during his six years. He's done all of this with just two NBA players, three-point specialist Troy Daniels and big man Larry Sanders, who were recruited by his predecessor -- the recently former Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Anthony Grant.

He was a father figure for the young men at VCU and pushed them to new heights in the off-season that paid dividends in the postseason. His presence at the state's largest public institution was much more than its head coach, it was Leader of Men, no, Leader of VCU.

But lurking just beneath the realm of success are a few overlooked facts that could make the Texas Longhorn brass a little uneasy if they could take the time to stop patting themselves on the back.

Despite being the most sought after commodity the past few off-seasons, and playing in two different Mid-Major conferences (CAA and A-10), Smart never, not once, won a regular season championship.

Teams that finished ahead of the Rams from 2010-2015 included: Rhode Island, Dayton, Davidson, St. Louis, Drexel, Hofstra, Old Dominion, George Mason, William & Mary, and Northeastern -- not exactly a who's who list of national title contenders.

He also only cut down the nets on a tournament championship twice -- 2012 in the CAA and this past year in the A-10.

His Final Four run came on the heels of nearly not making the tournament at all, even prompting Jay Bilas to eviscerate the NCAA Selection committee for including VCU.

However, it did happen, as did two missed, last-second three-pointers (Rd of 32 against Indiana in 2012 and first-round against Ohio State this year), and being on the wrong end of a crazy four-point play (Stephen F. Austin in 2014) in three separate tournaments that could have boosted Smart's stock.

We are talking one more selection committee member not choosing VCU and a few inches on three shots, making Smart so much better, or somewhat of an afterthought on the national scene.

The Big Dance can be cruel.

So, how do we know how good the Madison, WI native will be in Austin?

We don't.

If however, you are a betting person, you won't run out to Vegas and put Smart money on Shaka to end Self's 11-year regular season conference run (at least right away).

During that time a lot of other coaches have tried: national championship winners (Tubby Smith; Bobby Knight), highly-respected recruiters (Scott Drew and Fred Hoiberg), a current NBA coach (Quin Snyder) and one who has won NCAA Tournament games with a record five teams (Lon Kruger), among others.

To think Smart, a man interestingly who has enough confidence to know he can do it, will come right in and be the guy to knock the bully down off the hill right away is, excuse the pun, not smart.

He will have to deal with everything a new coach normally does: adjusting to new players, winning over fans, getting used to a new school and city, and dealing with a huge life change in general.

But at Texas, he's dealing with a whole new fall game.

He was never getting fired at VCU. He's already accomplished more than the nine previous coaches combined. If the Rams athletic department fired Smart for any reason outside of misconduct, Richmonders would chase whichever athletic director did so right out of town.

At Texas though, if he doesn't succeed, and succeed early, he'll be the one to take the fall.

Athletic Director Steve Patterson, who doesn't exactly have the best reputation, hails from the NBA where it's win yesterday, or you're out the door.

If everything truly is bigger in Texas, then so too are the expectations.

He is part of a sports giant now, one that isn't afraid to find the next Shaka Smart should he fall short. Make no mistake, he (or any other coach these days) isn't getting 17 years like his predecessor Rick Barnes if he isn't winning. Oh no, those days are gone. Barnes' days were numbered in 2007 when he couldn't get out of the Round of 32 with Kevin Durant! He survived on his 2003 Final Four appearance, and the fact he was well liked.

Smart is very likable as well, but less so, if he fails to make the NCAA Tournament, or does so but fails to get out of the first weekend.

In 18-months, Patterson fired long-time football coach Mack Brown and Barnes. Texas boosters may have wanted them out, but these weren't exactly new kids on the block he let go.

Texas can go out and buy anything it wants. There is a network named after, and partially owned, by the University. You think they won't go after the hottest available coach if they don't like the direction Smart is heading?

With all of that new pressure mounting on Smart's not-so-large shoulders, Self and the Jayhawks will continue to lock up top-20 recruits and play in a building where they come up short less often than Steve Nash at the free-throw line.

Just as the case with every other Big 12 coach, that won't make it easy on Smart and his Longhorns to win a conference title that has been captured by Kansas since Smart was 27 years old.

However, the Havoc style, seen in the video below, is not easy on opponents either -- and Smart and his players mastered the art of it.

Is it going to translate well to the Big 12? Maybe, maybe not. Smart will be recruiting longer, stronger, and more athletic players in Austin, and Havoc may become legendary.

However, picking against the Jayhawks until they actually don't win the conference is a fool's game. Ask Jack Harry.

Smart is going to have to prove it on the court next year, and not in neutral NCAA Tournament venues, but at Allen Fieldhouse, against Hilton Magic, and in other historic arenas with loud and proud fans.

Frankly, Self's already got that market cornered.