by Jeffrey Gordon
AUSTIN- Over a year ago, the University of Texas Men’s basketball team was getting ready to take the court prior to their quarterfinal matchup with Texas Tech. Before tip-off, both Shaka Smart of Texas and Chris Beard of Texas Tech were told by officials to go back to the locker rooms with their players. The Big 12 Tournament had just been canceled due to the Coronavirus. As we all know, the events that followed were unlike anything the college basketball world had faced, including the cancellation of other conference tournaments and ultimately, March Madness. Texas was on a streak, having just won 5 of their last 6 games before the Big 12 tournament, and was looking to build on their resume before Selection Sunday 2020. Fast-forward to the present day and so much has changed once again. People are getting vaccinated, fans are back in stadiums, and the world is starting to feel somewhat normal. That said, so much is different. When it comes to college basketball, perhaps the most bizarre of all is the fact that former Texas Tech Head Coach Chris Beard is now the Head Basketball Coach at Texas, and Shaka Smart has left for Marquette. Let me tell you a little about how we got to this point.
The 2019-20 Texas team was on the cusp of making the NCAA tournament in 2020 after a strong finish to their season. At one point, it looked like another trip to the NIT, but after beating TCU at home in mid-February the Longhorns were able to win 5 in a row including a big road win against the national runners up from the year before, Texas Tech Red Raiders led by their coach Chris Beard. The streak was also highlighted by Matt Coleman’s buzzer-beater at rival Oklahoma. After finishing the season strong, Texas was receiving high praise going into the 2020-21 season. They returned their entire roster from the previous season and added local Austin 5-star Freshman Greg Brown. Shaka Smart was in a make-or-break season after failing to win any tournament games in his previous 5 seasons. Additionally, this was arguably his most talented team during his time at Texas. Smart was able to develop NBA talent as Jarrett Allen, Mo Bamba and Jaxson Hayes all were first-round picks. However, the only postseason success they found during Smart’s tenure was an NIT championship.
Texas started the 2020-21 season 4-0, including taking the title at the Maui Invitational championship. Their lone non-conference loss came at the hands of Villanova, and Texas only lost by two possessions. The team caught attention from the rest of the country and really cemented themselves as a top 10 team after a blowout win against Kansas at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. This was UT’s first win at Kansas in ten years and the largest margin of victory of any opponent at the Phog since 1989. Texas followed that win with three straight victories, including a win in Morgantown at West Virginia, capped off by a game-winning corner three from Andrew Jones. Jones has dealt with so much through his career, and to see him hit that shot and the way his teammates celebrated with him showed how tight-knit this team was. Their potential was through the roof.
Not all was perfect, however. After a heartbreaking loss at home to Texas Tech, the Longhorns were hit with COVID problems and lost three straight to OU, Baylor, and Oklahoma State, on the road. They even played the Baylor game without Head Coach Shaka Smart on the sidelines. Ultimately, Texas was able to win 6 of their last 8 games of the season after the three-game skid, and won their last three carrying a lot of momentum into the Big 12 Tournament.
Like the previous year, Texas was slated to play Texas Tech in the quarterfinals after losing to them twice in the regular season. Led by Senior guard Matt Coleman’s 19 points and two clutch free throws with less than 2 seconds remaining, the Horns were able to take care of Tech and advance to the semifinals for the first time since the 2013-14 season. A date with Kansas was set for the semi-finals but due to a positive covid case in the KU program, Texas was awarded a spot in the finals where they met Oklahoma State. They had split the season series, each team winning at home and the rubber match would determine who won the season series and a Big 12 tournament title, and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Texas took care of Oklahoma State and projected #1 pick, Cade Cunningham. Two seniors, Matt Coleman and Jericho Sims helped Texas capture the school’s first Big 12 tournament championship and were a trendy pick in people’s brackets heading into the tournament.
Texas left for Indy, where they would take on the 13-seed Abilene Christian Wildcats who won the Southland Conference tournament championship. Not many people knew much about the Wildcats other than their suffocating defense, and fans and pundits alike were not worried about the potential of Texas losing especially, with the way they finished the season. That said, once the game got rolling, things started to look a little shaky. Texas had a 5 point lead going into halftime and there were some concerns about how they were going to be able to withstand Abilene’s pressure on the defensive end. The Wildcats controlled much of the pace in the second half and found themselves leading late. A three-pointer by Andrew Jones with 16 seconds left put the Horns up by 1and all the team needed to do was get a stop on the other end. The team was able to get that stop when Kai Jones blocked one of the Abilene player’s shots, but no Horns were able to secure the rebound. Joe Pleasant, who Longhorn fans will never forget, corralled the rebound and had a put-back that missed but was fouled in the act of shooting. A 60% shooter on the season, Pleasant took the line and only needed one free throw to send the game into overtime at the very least. Pleasant hit both, and Texas had one last shot with two seconds left to go 94 feet for a bucket. They were not able to get a look, and the Wildcats pulled off one of the biggest upsets in this year’s tournament.
On March 26th, 2021 Head Coach Shaka Smart resigned and took the job at Marquette. His time at Texas was not the best in terms of success, but Coach Smart was a great mentor to his players and they loved him. With no coach and the loss of sophomore forward Kai Jones to the draft, UT was in a completely different spot from where they had been the month before. Also, five players who were on the 2020-21 roster all entered the transfer portal and found new homes. . With uncertainty surrounding the program, guys like Courtney Ramey and Andrew Jones were left with tough decisions on whether to come back to Texas for the upcoming season.
Chris Beard who is a Texas alumni and served as a graduate assistant was always connected to the Longhorns job if there was an opening over the past few years. On April 1st, 2021 Coach Beard finally made his return to the 40 Acres and was named the new head basketball coach at his alma mater. With the resources at UT, Beard has been allowed to propel the Horns into the forefront of the college basketball world. His first decision at Texas was to hire his longtime friend Chris Ogden, who previously served as the Head Coach at UT-Arlington. Ogden will serve as the Managing Director at UT and will be joined by Associate Head Coach Rodney Terry who was at Texas for 9 seasons, including a trip to the 2003 Final Four. Rounding out the staff will be Jerrance Howard who was one of the best assistant coaches in the country at Kansas, and Ulric Maligi who was on Beard’s staff at Tech the previous two seasons. Coach Beard assembled a coaching staff that could go up against any in the nation in just two weeks.
Texas did not have much of a roster coming into this season but Coach Beard was able to retain Ramey and Jones for the upcoming year. This will give Texas two guards who have experience and played together for three seasons. I have written about how Beard is one of the coaches who have used the transfer portal to his advantage, most notably with Mac McClung this past year, who won the Big-12 Newcomer of the Year for the Red Raiders. To help assemble the UT roster, Beard went back to the transfer portal and found success. Texas was able to land Timmy Allen, a first-team All- PAC-12 recipient who averaged 17 points this past season. Beard followed that up by landing former 5-Star Point Guard Devin Askew, a transfer from Kentucky. Askew, who reclassified a year to the class of 2020, started 20 of the 25 games for the Wildcats this past season and will bring college experience to a position the Longhorns will look to fill with the loss of Matt Coleman. Personally, I still believe in Askew and think he can develop well and play a similar role Dave Moretti brought to the Texas Tech team that made it to the 2019 National Championship. With the losses of Kai Jones and Royce Hamm as well as the potential losses of Jericho Sims and Greg Brown, Texas needed to add some guys to their frontcourt. Christian Bishop who transferred from Creighton and Dylan Disu, a Vanderbilt transfer will be in line to replace those bigs. Bishop led the Big East in field goal percentage which ranked him in the top ten nationally in 2020-21 and is a rim running big who is very similar to Jericho Sims. Disu is also a long big who can put the ball on the floor in open space and create his own shot with a nice face-up game. He averaged 15 points and 9 rebounds per game for Vandy this past season. Finally, Texas was able to get incoming 6’6 Freshman Jaylon Tyson who was previously committed to Texas Tech when Beard was there. He is a top 30 recruit in the nation according to 247Sports.com and is a nice three-level scorer. Looking at where the team started, what Beard has been able to put together is downright impressive.
It’s exciting times as fans get ready for the Chris Beard Era to start here down in Austin. The success that he has had so far this offseason is certainly a step in the right direction. I would also like to thank Matt Coleman for everything he gave to this program. He will always be a Longhorn legend. The Longhorns may look and play different in 2021-22 but the future is bright in Austin and hopefully, the college basketball world will know soon.