After Shaka Smart's exit, can Texas finally get it right?

There is no greater sleeping giant in all of college basketball than the University of Texas — a program so ripe with potential that it consistently attracts high-quality dreamers … who eventually leave vexed and frustrated.

It’s been that way for, what, 70 years?

For a long time, its best attribute was hiring Abe Lemons, whose actual name was just A.E. Lemons, two initials that stood for nothing so he inserted the "b". A product of the Oklahoma dust bowl of the Great Depression, he used to joke he was born so poor he couldn’t afford a name. Funny, funny guy … who went to just one NCAA tournament in six seasons.

Shaka Smart was the latest. He came six years ago after a brilliant run at VCU, where he reached five consecutive NCAA tournaments, including the 2011 Final Four. The then-37-year-old had turned down a slew of major programs but couldn’t resist the pull of Austin.

He bailed to Marquette on Friday, one step ahead of an inevitable firing (this spring or next) after failing, once again, to advance past the first round of the NCAA men's tournament. Last week’s first-round loss to Abilene Christian was particularly brutal.

He joins not just Lemons, but Harold Bradley, Leon Black, Slue Hall, Jack Gray, Marshall Hughes, Bob Weltlich, Tom Penders and Rick Barnes in not making it work. Penders and Barnes certainly had some success (Barnes and star T.J. Ford even reached the Final Four in 2003).

Still, this is Texas. Or it should be.

The Horns are back to familiar territory — looking for someone who can corral all that local talent and actually win big.

Texas coach Shaka Smart talks to his players during a loss to  Abilene Christian in the first round of the NCAA tournament on March 20. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Texas coach Shaka Smart talks to his players during a loss to Abilene Christian in the first round of the NCAA men's tournament on March 20. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Shaka's decision to leave by his own volition saves UT about $7 million. It should be full-throttle from here. They have a central location, modern facilities, a cool city and campus, plenty of money and just about everything else you can dream up.

That includes a new, right-sized, 10,000-seat basketball arena set to open in 2022. Constructing a $338 million stadium kind of defeats the argument that Texas doesn’t care about basketball. And if the Longhorns win, that place will be rocking.

But can they win? How they haven’t already is a mystery.

How did Smart have more success at VCU than UT? How have the Horns been to one Final Four since 1947 — and none in nearly two decades? How has a program with 11 first-round NBA draft picks since 2006 not reached even a Sweet 16 since 2008?

How are Baylor, Houston and Texas Tech infinitely better programs? How in a state where pro basketball is huge — Dallas, Houston and San Antonio have all won NBA titles since the mid-1990s — is the sport so mediocre at the state’s flagship university?

There are 52 current NBA players who attended high school in the state of Texas, per Fifty-two! Houston and the Metroplex are prime recruiting territory.

Yet the Longhorns aren’t good?

Jimmy Butler, De’Aaron Fox, Julius Randle, Pascal Siakam, Marcus Smart, Jordan Clarkson … all current NBA stars who went elsewhere, for one reason or another. Of course, this is a program that once lured Kevin Durant from Maryland and still lost in the second round of the NCAA men's tournament.

Now Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte must dial up the burnt-orange courtesy phone just months after hiring Steve Sarkisian as his football coach.

The options, as always, are limitless.

Can you get John Calipari to finally leave Kentucky? Probably not, but after a nine-win campaign in his ninth season since a national title, and with fans expressing unrest after he knelt with his players during the pregame national anthem, the mood in Lexington may have changed.

Calipari has feasted on Texas talent (he’s signed nine five-star recruits from there, including Fox, Randle and incoming big man Daimion Collins). And for all the power of Kentucky basketball, he could certainly duplicate his high-octane recruiting and player development system in a city such as Austin.

The chances of snatching one of the two in-state Big 12 coaches — Baylor’s Scott Drew and Texas Tech’s Chris Beard, who each have surpassed Texas — seems unlikely (and expensive), but it’s worth a shot. Beard’s buyout at Tech drops to just $2 million on April 1, but he’s being paid nearly $5 million per year in Lubbock.

What about Eric Musselman, who has done wonders at Arkansas, or Mike Boynton, who has Oklahoma State soaring, or Dana Altman, who seems to max out Oregon most years, at least in March? Or another mid-major star from across the country? Maybe Porter Moser could do what Shaka couldn’t? Are you willing to take a shot with proven winner John Beilein, even if he’s 68 years old?

The interest will be there. When college basketball coaches talk about jobs, there is a special tone reserved for the Longhorns. Yes, football will always be king. But basketball should be a bigger deal. This should be the destination for in-state talent.

It’s like the Longhorns are forever paying for their decades-ago indifference. They should have hired a young Don Haskins after he led Texas Western to the 1966 national championship. UT could have set itself up as a basketball school then.

Instead, it’s still at Square One.

Can a tour de force like Calipari reconstruct things on the fly? Can one of these homegrown coaching stars change this at last? Will the right up-and-comer finally settle in?

Can Texas get it right — truly right — at last?

It’s all there. It always has been.

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