The Big 12 has been owned by the Kansas Jayhawks for some time now. While there are obviously other quality programs in the league, it is the Bill Self-led program that continues to have a stranglehold of dominance over the conference. All of that is true, and can remain true moving forward, but Texas Longhorns coach Shaka Smart is doing his damnedest to do something about it.
Even while removing all the hoopla and hype that came with Smart when he was hired away from VCU, there is great reason for optimism if you are a Longhorns fan. Not only did he exceed expectations during year one of this new era of Texas basketball last season, but he is pushing the envelope on the recruiting trail in all the right ways.
Smart has the fifth best 2016 recruiting class in the country, and that one is about to come on campus to help with the immediate future of the program. A class, mind you, that features three four-star recruits and a five-star. The type of class that is excellent by any measurable. In comparison, Kansas has a good class, but it is ranked lower (16th).
This doesn’t inherently mean Texas will take over the top of the Big 12. Grading recruits is a forever fluid endeavor, and the amount of stars attached to a prospect’s name doesn’t automatically equate to greatness. Not to mention that Kansas is still very much doing great things of their own on the recruiting trail.
Still, it is a sincerely good sign, especially when you consider how little time to adjust Smart has had in the trial by fire Big 12 landscape. A league that will swallow ill-equipped coaches whole while Self is off to the side with his never-ending line of talent ready to wallop a great foe as much as one that’s downtrodden.
There’s even more to this than recruiting.
Smart can combat Kansas in ways most — but not all — other coaches in the Big 12 can’t. He, like Self, is a name-brand person. He might be an even bigger name-brand. Hell, it can be argued, at least in terms relative to college basketball, Smart is a crossover household name. Self is partially that, too, but it is hard to imagine him transcending the sport’s culture in the way Smart does.
In turn, that transcendence has already paid off on the recruiting trail, but it is also going to afford him a benefit of the doubt other coaches who went after the Big 12 throne did not. Smart will be able to parlay his level of cool into making Texas an it program — which isn’t too shabby for an already well established entity, but Smart turning the Longhorns into a destination spot for the nation’s best high school players is an aspect of his building process that can’t go overlooked.
Obviously, a lot of this hinges on Texas allowing the success to beget itself. The already-forward-moving momentum can be stunted with a singular disastrous season, though it is worth noting that no sort of calamities are projected for the Longhorns anytime in the near future.
We have been asking the same question over and over again for more than a decade now: Is this the year someone other than the Kansas Jayhawks win the Big 12 regular season title? Season over season, despite making strong cases for other teams, the answer has remained the same — a forceful no.
Now the landscape has changed. It might still be Bill Self’s and Kansas’ world, with mostly everyone else just living in it, but Shaka Smart and Texas seem poised to make a push get have the Jayhawks evicted.
That might not happen this upcoming season, but Smart is clearly building toward making that happen. When/if it happens is anyone’s guess, but there’s little reason to think it won’t.