The second-year Texas coach is succeeding even as he shifts his recruiting focus from diamonds in the rough to top prospects
COLORADO SPRINGS — When we last saw Shaka Smart on our TV screens, he was striking an anguished pose, with both hands clutching his scalp and both eyes shut tight. The cause was a banked-in, halfcourt, buzzer-beating heave by Northern Iowa forward Paul Jesperson, which eliminated Smart's Texas Longhorns in the first round of the NCAA tournament. That Texas was even a part of March Madness was testament to the deftness with which Smart navigated his first season in Austin. But that didn't make the conclusion any less painful. "When a game ends that way, it just shocks you," he says. "If it happens during the season, you have another game so you're forced to move on. But when it happens at the end, you can't. So you just want to go underground."
Smart looked considerably more cheerful Wednesday morning at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where he was conducting trials as the head coach for Team USA's Under-18 team that will compete at the FIBA Americas Championship July 19–23 in Chile. During a break between sessions, Smart walked to where Jarrett Allen, a skilled, slender, 6'10" 220-pound center, was sitting with ice packs taped to his knees. "The second session in the day is going to feel a little more sluggish, but just try to come out with a lot of energy," Smart said. "I saw you went after a few really good balls that you didn't get. If you keep going after 'em, eventually you're gonna get 'em."
Allen is not just an important asset in the Americans' efforts to win gold. He is also the cornerstone of Smart's first recruiting class at Texas. Allen, who was selected to be a McDonald's All-American following a stellar senior season St. Stephen's Episcopal School in Austin, was one of two Longhorns freshmen who were invited to the trials. The other was James Banks, a sturdy 6'11" center from Georgia. Both made the first cut to be among the 18 finalists who will resume training next month in Houston in hopes of making the final 12-man roster. Texas's incoming class also includes a second McDonald's All-American, 6'4" combo guard Andrew Jones from Irving, Texas, marking the fourth time in history that the school has signed two McDonald's All-Americans, and just the second in which both recruits were from Texas.
Given that the program lost seven of its 12 scholarship players from last season, it was imperative that Smart land a class of both quantity and quality. Though he was coming off an enormously successful six-year tenure at VCU, highlighted by an unlikely trip to the 2011 Final Four, he had yet to prove he could recruit well enough to keep Texas competitive in the Big 12. That question was answered—in the short term, anyway—when Allen agreed to come on board earlier this month. "You can't let a guy from your hometown get away, especially someone of Jarrett's caliber," says Evan Daniels, director of basketball recruiting for Scout.com, who ranks Texas's four-man freshman class as the sixth-best in the country. "Shaka has such a knack for building relationships and finding ways to relate to the guys so they will trust him. This is a really impressive start."
And yet, it was far from given that it would all come together. Much like his team's performance on the court—the Longhorns stumbled to a 9–6 start before winning seven of their first 10 games in conference play and reaching the NCAA tournament—Smart's first recruiting cycle was a high-wire act that came very close to ending in disaster. There was certainly much adjusting to do. At VCU, Smart had specialized in finding what he calls "wild dogs," players who had few or perhaps zero scholarship offers and played with a burning desire to prove their worth. At Texas, however, he understood that he would need to procure top-30 players who were good enough to go to the NBA after one or two college seasons.
He quickly discovered it would be harder than he thought. "I probably was really naïve in failing to properly anticipate the level of negative recruiting we'd get from other schools," he says. "I guess that's just how it works, but we got hit quite a bit with people saying that we weren't going to recruit high-major guys. People were trying to play on the fear of kids and their families."
He appeared to be feeding that narrative when he landed his first recruit, Jacob Young, a 6-foot shooting guard from Houston. Young has impressive blood lines—his father, Michael, played for Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma teams and his brother, Joseph, currently plays for the Indiana Pacers—but he was not thought of in recruiting circles as a high-level player. Likewise, while Smart did an excellent job courting Banks, who committed in October, he also did not generate the type of one-and-done sizzle that raises eyebrows.
Smart suffered some nervous moments during his recruitment of Jones. When he first started showing an interest after taking the Texas job, Jones was attracting offers regionally from schools like Tulsa and Texas Tech. Jones, however, enjoyed an outstanding summer on Nike's EYBL circuit, prompting Arizona and Louisville, among others, to come in hot pursuit. Fortunately for Smart, Jones's father encouraged Andrew to take his time and wait until the spring to sign a letter of intent. That bought Smart time to prove he could win at Texas and develop the relationship with Jones.
While he waited for Jones, Smart missed out on several important targets. He had been recruiting 6'8" Virginia native Javin DeLaurier for two years, including his last at VCU, and Smart thought he would get him. However, when Duke came from out of nowhere and offered DeLaurier a scholarship in early September, he immediately accepted. Smart got no traction with Texas's two premier players, 6'3" guard De'Aaron Fox, who signed with Kentucky, and 6'10" center Marques Bolden, who ended up choosing Duke in the spring, but at least he lost them to ultra-elite programs. That was not the case when two other prospects, 6'8" San Antonio native Clevon Brown and 6'8" Tennessee native Braxton Key, opted for Vanderbilt and Alabama, respectively.
Two developments helped tip the balance. First, in November Kentucky took a commitment from 6'9" forward Bam Adebayo, which cooled Allen's interest in joining that program. Second, on Dec. 12, Smart got his first signature win when the Longhorns upset No. 3 North Carolina 84–82 at the Erwin Center. Jones was in attendance at that game, and he was duly impressed. Two days later, he gave Smart his commitment.
That left Allen, who would wind down his recruitment in mysterious, maddening fashion. He had been one of the first recruits Smart had visited after taking the job, but the coach immediately sensed that he would have to work his way slowly into the player's confidence. Smart's instincts would prove to be correct—and decisive. "He didn't try to overpursue me," Allen says. "Some coaches would text me every day. I'm not a texter. I don't like being on the phone a lot. Coach Smart said he would call me once every two weeks, which was perfect for me. He really took the time to get to know me."
As the spring signing period approached with no word from Allen or his family, Smart had no choice but to give the player his space. "I had to check myself multiple times throughout the process because my natural inclination from my years as an assistant is to be relentless," he says. That was not the approach taken by Jones, who shadowed Allen throughout the week they spent in Chicago for the McDonald's All-American Game. "When we went out to lunch, I was with him. When we were on the bus, I was with him," Jones says. "After one of the practices I showed him a video of me throwing an alley-oop. I told him, 'This could be me and you all next year.' But Jarrett has this poker face, so I really didn't know what he was going to do."
The spring signing period ended on May 18, and still Allen had not made up his mind. Often times, when a player delays his announcement that long, he is trying to gin up attention. Allen, however, seemed genuinely torn as he tried to decide between Texas, Kansas, Kentucky and Houston. For Smart, the wait was excruciating. "When you go all in for one player, you open yourself to a difficult scenario if you don't get him," Smart says. "There were other guys we had passed on because we wanted to recruit him."
Allen finally put Smart out of his misery when he revealed on June 3 that he would be coming to Texas. Because the official spring period had passed, Allen was not able to sign a national letter of intent, so he drove to the school and signed an Athletic Scholarship Agreement instead. Technically, that means Allen is not officially bound to play for Texas until the fall semester begins on Aug. 24, but he has already started summer school and is leaving little doubt as to his intentions. (If Allen were to leave Texas for another school he would have to it out a year per transfer rules.) "I know that once I make a decision, it's final," he says.
All of which is making Smart's first head coaching experience with USA Basketball an enjoyable one. He delighted in watching his newbies get their feet wet against the high-caliber competition that had assembled in Colorado Springs. "These guys are just getting started. It's great just watching them find their way and compete," he says. Asked if he believes Allen will be an immediate starter and get major minutes as a freshman, Smart answers "yes" without hesitation. "Dealing with the physicality of the college level is going to be a factor for him, but he's a quick learner. That's one thing that the better players I've been around have in common. They learn fast."
The same can be said for Allen's current and future head coach. Smart's first season in Austin came with a steep learning curve, but at least things are trending up. Though the challenges ahead are new, he knows he can rely on the same old precepts that got him here, which apply to recruiting as well as rebounding. If you keep going after 'em, eventually you're going to get 'em.