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(University of Texas Athletics)

For the first time in almost a decade, the Texas Longhorns basketball team started its season 9-1 and 3-0 in conference play with a 84-59 blowout win over No. 3 Iowa State Tuesday. Some fans are wondering, with this early success, what has been the difference between this season and previous ones under Head Coach Shaka Smart?


In a season undermined by a pandemic, a lack of fans and game cancellations, you might think that Texas would struggle out of the gate. Other programs have. But the Longhorns have found success by playing with an edge.

Texas might have had the best college basketball win so far this season when they traveled to Allen Fieldhouse to take on Kansas last Saturday. The 25-point win propelled Texas to No. 4 in the country and has the entire college basketball world looking to Austin and sixth-year coach Smart for clues about the turnaround.

"Results on the court are first and foremost going to be a function of the improvement that players have made," Smart said at this week's press conference. "The ability of the players to be connected around winning and around what goes into winning. I think anytime that you're able to win a significant game that's an indication of that."

Smart attributes the early season success on the court to confidence, defense and chemistry.

Confidence

The cliche that "confidence is the key to success" applies to Texas this season.

Texas has found a system on offense that relies on trusting their guards to make the right decisions when running the offense and having their big men rebound and set screens.

"Everything is opening up now," 6-foot-10 forward Jericho Sims said. "I think if I get to the rim and make a lot of people collapse on me, then that really opens up the floor for everybody else."

When you watch the Longhorns play, there is a sense of purpose that may have been missing during stretches last season. Sims and freshmen Greg Brown are both in the top 10 for rebounds in the Big 12 and in the top 50 nationally.

Senior guards Matt Coleman and Andrew Jones and junior Country Ramey on the court. (University of Texas Athletics)

The Longhorns have also found confidence in the formidable trio of senior guards Matt Coleman and Andrew Jones and junior Country Ramey. Together, the three upperclassmen have figured out different ways in every game this season to put the Longhorns in situations to win. Only Texas and Saturday's opponent West Virginia have three players averaging more than 13 points this season in the Big 12.

"I think our guys definitely have more confidence and expect to win," Smart said. "Definitely felt that on Saturday (against Kansas), but it's a fine line. What we like to tell the players as coaches: 'Expect to win, but expect to do what goes into winning.'"

Defense

"When you have a lead, if you keep the other team from scoring," Smart said, "then you're not going to lose the lead."

Every Shaka Smart team has one thing in common, a defensive philosophy that pressures shooters and doesn't allow driving lanes into the paint. The three most recent players that Texas has sent to the NBA—Jarrett Allen, Mo Bamba and Jaxon Hayes—have been shot blockers and defensive standouts who had to work on their offensive games once they got to the pros.

The Longhorns have kept their opponents shooting under 40% early in the season. The Big 12 can be one of the best conferences week in and week out, with different types of lineups and different defensive looks. Texas has to try to match the energy and intensity of each opponent they face.

"On the defensive end our guys have done a really good job playing with energy," Smart said. "But we also know that that's not a given. It's something that we've got to make sure that we bring. As I tell the guys all the time, it starts with our edge. We have to have an edge about us."

Chemistry

With 10 upperclassmen on the team, it's easy to see how teamwork and experience have created successful chemistry.

"We're a group of guys that really worked on our games over the offseason and really looked to improve and be better as a team," Jones said. "We trust each other, we trust our work and we don't really get down about shot selections that guys take. We just trust each player is going to make the right play."

The team celebrates on the court. (University of Texas Athletics)

The group is connected to each other, a foundation laid when Coach Smart came to Texas.

"You got a group of guys who have really bought into the culture and who we are and want to be," Jones said. "I wouldn't necessarily say it's a culture shift, it's more of our culture finally being noticed and brought to light with our connectivity."

And like so many things, the "confidence, defense and connectivity" that binds this team together can be traced back to another CDC—Chris Del Conte, University of Texas at Austin Athletic Director. Many ADs might have cut bait with Smart, who came from success at mid-major VCU, when he missed the tournament in 2017, or when the Longhorns lost by four to Nevada in the first round. Instead, Del Conte stuck with Smart and fans are starting to see the culture that the Longhorns head coach has been trying to build—and some wished to see the football team reflect this growth. Smart has now outlasted two football coaches and is proving to be worth it.

The Longhorns have a tough test Saturday when they take their undefeated conference record to Morgantown to face off against No. 14 West Virginia Mountaineers. The game tips off at noon on ESPN.

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