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A Primer on the New Texas Longhorns Basketball Coach, Shaka Smart

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Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Longhorns hired Shaka Smart to be the head coach of the basketball program this week, which is a sentence I never thought I'd type in anything other than an early-summer fever dream. I'm still processing it this morning, waiting for Scipio to shake (I really wanted to type shake-a) me awake and tell me I need to learn how to spell Krysto Krystka the Utah Coach K for the next 6 years. Short of a John Denver moment, Texas has its head coach, and it's Shaka Smart. I'm sorry, could you excuse me for a moment?

*calmly walks out of the room*

*closes the door*

*straightens shirt, looks in mirror*

*calmly walks back into the room*

Sorry, I had to..uh, take a call. Where were we?

Who is Shaka Smart?

Shaka Smart is a nearly 38 year old (his birthday is next week) coach from Virginia Commonwealth University. He was born & raised in Wisconsin & played college basketball at Division III Kenyon College where he was a starting point guard and ultimately the school's career assists leader. After graduating magna cum laude he went straight into coaching, bouncing around a couple of Ohio colleges before moving up to the power conferences as an assistant at Clemson & Florida. Florida is where he likely started creating his 'HAVOC' defense, as it very closely resembles the pressure defense Florida HC Billy Donovan deploys. After 2 years under Donovan, Shaka got the call from VCU to replace outgoing coach Anthony Grant. I won't delve into his VCU tenure much as it's been pretty well-documented in other posts, suffice it to say he did well enough that his name was one of the top two mentioned for nearly every high-profile coaching vacancy for the past 3 years. He's married to Maya Payne, a writer with more college degrees than an Aggie family reunion. She runs a business as a writing coach & you can read a 2012 interview with her where she talks about some of her business endeavors here. They have a daughter named Zora that was born in 2011. I'm sorry, could you excuse me for a moment?

*calmly walks out of the room*

*closes the door*

*straightens shirt, looks in mirror*

*calmly walks back into the room*

Sorry, I had to..uh, snapchat somebody. Where were we?

What Kind of Team Will Shaka Have?

In a word, interesting. I wanted to say 'fun', 'exciting', or perhaps unleash a series of guttural grunts, but 'interesting' is probably more appropriate. If that sounds like a tepid response, it's not; I'm simply leaving the door wide open because we're walking into a situation with a lot bigger potential beta than we're used to from Rick Barnes teams. If Barnes was Coca-Cola stock, Shaka Smart is a solar start-up. This is inherent in teams that utilize pressure defenses, you're taking a calculated gamble that your team can force the other into making a mistake and that you'll create more turnovers than open shots in the end. Pressure defenses distort the game; good pressure defenses distort the game in your favor, bad pressure defenses distort the game in the opponent's favor. But as with any other gamble, you're going to lose sometimes, so the distortion that puts you into the lead can also take you right out of the lead. West Virginia this season was a good example of the distortion effect; they'd be down by 12 and bounce back to take the lead a number of times, but they'd also blow big leads for the same reason. I'm saying this not to make Texas fans concerned, but rather to set expectations. The Shaka Smart teams will gamble more than you're accustomed to seeing at Texas, and sometimes they're going to get burned. If you're the remote-throwing type, you might want to bubble-wrap your valuables. Having said that, the 'HAVOC' defense isn't the most aggressive press you'll ever see. They're not Nolan Richardson's '40 Minutes of Hell', it's more a straight-up defense that presses when the opportunity arises to exploit opponent mistakes. If you want to get a granular break down of the 'Double Fist' (Shaka's name for the trapping press) defense, check out Jeff Haley's BON article. You're likely to see Shaka go after athletic wings & guards in his recruiting classes, with his 'bigs' being more like Prince Ibeh and less like Dexter Pittman. Jordan Barnett is probably ecstatic at who Texas hired, because he's pretty much the blueprint for the kind of guy Shaka goes after. His minutes will go through the roof if he can pick up the playbook quickly. JC25 has a breakdown of the current roster posted. Personally, I'm pretty excited to see Shaka too. Like, really excited. Could you excuse me for a moment?

*calmly walks out of the room*

*closes the door*

*straightens shirt, looks in mirror*

*calmly walks back into the room*

Sorry, I had to..uh, strangle a drifter. Where were we?

Can You Irresponsibly Extrapolate on Shaka from One Interaction?

Why yes, yes I can, and I'm so glad you asked! I'm sure I've mentioned this many times over the past year, but I got to watch Shaka in person at Larry Brown's coaching clinic several months ago and I wrote down as many notes as possible. There were a number of things I gleaned from his 60 minute session.

  • Shaka says he looks for 3 things in recruits: 1) They need basketball like they need air, 2) They show 'great teamship' (they're not in it for themselves), and 3) They treat the game as a study. Can you see why I think he and Demarcus Holland are going to be BFFs before the weekend is over?
  • HAVOC has 5 components: 1) A full-court press, 2) A half-court press, 3) Transition offense, 4) An attacking half-court offense, & 5) 3-4 guys flying to the offensive glass.
  • The pressure defense is divided into 3 roles: The 2 trappers up front, 2 interceptors stalking the passing lanes, and 1 goaltender who is the last line of defense if the trappers & interceptors falter.
  • There are 3 conditions for sending the trap: 1) The ball handler is not in control(aka the defense is speeding him up), 2) The element of surprise is there (he tells his guards to look for the back of the ball-handler's head, if they can see it then he can't see them) and the trapper is within 3 strides of the ball, & 3) floor position is favorable. In other words, they've managed to move the ball-handler outside of the lane lines and can use the sidelines as another defender.
  • Shaka calls the guy defending the ball his 'madman'. I'm irrationally excited about that term. Could you excuse me for a moment?
  • Wait, no, I'm alright. Let's continue.
  • Shaka has one assistant coach devoted to watch the quality of the traps at all times.
  • Shaka places a premium on denying the first pass after the ball crosses half-court.
  • Shaka wants 30+ deflections every game, and at least 3 from the madman position.
  • Shaka makes his teams take a charge every single practice.
  • He calls a defender's forearm 'his hammer' and talked at length about defenders 'getting a hammer in the opponent's chest'. CAN THE SEASON PLEASE START ALREADY.
  • Shaka's calves are the size of grapefruits. Dude doesn't miss leg day. (This was like the 2nd note in my entire notebook.)

There's more in the notebook - Bill Self was there so I was glued to him too - but you're starting to get a picture of the man who is at the head of the program. He had one of the best lectures of the day and his command of a room full of coaches was impressive. He has a presence that many of the other speakers lacked, and he'll control the room wherever he goes. Larry Brown loves the guy; when he was done with his lecture, Larry & Shaka spent 30 minutes on the far side of the court talking tactics & drawing up plays together. Shaka is a basketball sponge, and this was a hell of a hire. I can't begin to tell you how happy I am that Texas landed him. Could you excuse me for a moment?