Texas wasn't winning in March. So the school ushered out coach Rick Barnes and hired Shaka Smart to change the trend.
Now it's Smart's turn to try to deliver some postseason success, although the way this team limped into March has a familiar look to seasons past. The Longhorns, the No. 6 seed in the West Regional, face No. 11 Northern Iowa (22-12) on Friday night in Oklahoma City.
The public message when Texas hired Smart wasn't explicitly "win in March" but it might as well have been. Texas rarely struggled under Barnes to get the NCAA Tournament — 16 appearances in 17 years — but it was his inability to get the Longhorns past the first weekend since 2008 that brought fan and school administration frustration to a boil.
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Former athletic director Steve Patterson forced Barnes out and hired Smart from Virginia Commonwealth, a hot young coach who made his name nationally with an improbable Final Four run in 2011. Smart's VCU teams struggled to duplicate that success. VCU didn't make it out of the NCAA tourney's first weekend for the next four years. The last two years were one-and-done.
Smart said he's not feeling any special pressure heading into this tournament with Texas.
"Trust me, I'm going to put everything I have into helping our team be the best it can be," Smart said. "I understand how the media works. If you win, there's a level of credit you get. If you lose, there's a level of blame you get. That's how it worked at VCU. I don't really focus on that because at the end of the day, I can live with myself if I do the best job for our guys and help them try to be their best on and off the court."
Smart's first season slowly renewed excitement about the Longhorns' program. Texas goes into the tournament boasting some big wins, including one over a No. 1 seed (North Carolina) and three more against No. 2 seeds (Oklahoma, and West Virginia twice).
"We've shown that we can play with anybody in the country," senior forward Connor Lammert said.
But the momentum of the regular season disappeared in recent weeks. Texas limped to a 3-3 finish with three blowout losses. A 30-point loss to Kansas, the tournament's overall top seed, ranked among the most lopsided home defeats in school history. Then came a first-round exit from the Big 12 Tournament.
After returning home, Smart sat the team down for a players meeting to clear the air.
"I didn't do a lot of talking. We encouraged our guys to put some things on the table," Smart said. "I listened to all that. You can rip some scabs off and uncover some things. It's not like we've got all kinds of time to heal the wounds. I just felt like, the way we're playing, some descriptive things needed to be said."
Texas heads into the tournament with its share of aches and pains.
Point guard Isaiah Taylor, the Longhorns' most dynamic player, is struggling with plantar fasciitis in his right foot. Texas center Cam Ridley, who returned for the league tournament after more than two months off with a broken bone in his foot, played just 2 minutes and is still trying to get into game shape.
"The guys really want to win. They want to go on a run. They want to experience March Madness," Smart said. "If you are a really good college basketball player or a really good basketball team, this is the time of year when you make your mark. They realize they haven't done that yet."